RENO, Nev. — A judge considering legal challenges to government approval of a Nevada mine at the largest known U.S. deposit of lithium said Wednesday she'll decide by the end of the month whether to grant the conservationists' bid for a temporary ban on any digging at the site because of potential harm to sage grouse and other wildlife.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du also agreed to an expedited review of a new request from a Nevada tribe to join the legal battle and seek a similar restraining order based on its claim the mine would disturb sacred burial grounds near the Nevada-Oregon line.
Overshadowed by conflict at a lithium mine planned north of Las Vegas where the government intends to declare a rare wildflower threatened or endangered, Lithium Nevada Corp.'s proposed Thacker Pass mine is emerging as a potentially bigger battleground in the debate over environmental trade-offs tied to President Joe Biden's push for renewable energy.
Lithium is a key component in electric vehicle batteries.
Lawyers for the mine, the Bureau of Land Management and four conservation groups argued their cases before Du in Reno on Wednesday as protesters rallied outside. The critics say the federal agency violated several environmental laws in a December rush to approve the mine in the final days of the Trump administration.
Lawyers for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Western Watersheds Project said in a joint motion filed late Tuesday that the agency also is violating the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to consult with tribal members about plans to dig trenches to gather data for a cultural mitigation plan at the site where Native Americans were slaughtered in the late 1800s.
"If the BLM and Lithium Nevada prevail, a massive open pit mine will be constructed on a massacre site, historic properties and hunting and gathering grounds important to the region's tribes," they wrote on behalf of 1,157 members of the colony who include the Shoshone, Paiute and Washoe tribes.
A lawyer for the agency said Wednesday they currently are in consultation with members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes.
The Thacker Pass mine is planned on 28 square miles of federal land above an extinct volcano formed millions of years ago about 25 miles south of the Nevada-Oregon line. It's projected to produce 1,000 jobs during construction and 300 once completed, generating $75 million in state and local tax revenue over a decade.
Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch and others said in their lawsuit filed earlier this year that some of the region's most essential and irreplaceable sage grouse habitat could be lost if the mine is built. They say the bureau also has dismissed potential harm to golden eagles and destruction of pronghorn antelope habitat.
They joined claims in a separate suit filed by a longtime Nevada rancher that the bureau also erroneously concludes no federally protected Lahontan cutthroat trout exist in the streams that will be affected.
Du said Wednesday she intends to rule on the conservationists' request for a temporary injunction on July 29. That's the day Lithium Nevada has said it intends to begin excavations as part of its cultural mitigation plan.
She said she'll consider the tribe's request to intervene in the case on an expedited briefing schedule and hopes to make a decision on that by then as well. She said she doesn't intend to rule on the merits of the conservationists' overall lawsuit before the end of January.
Global demand for lithium is forecast to triple by 2025, Lithium Nevada said in recent court filings. The proposed mine is the only one in the nation on the drawing board that can help meet that demand, it said.
"Delay of this mitigation disturbing less than half an acre would halt development of the largest and most advanced lithium mine in the U.S. with no alternative, eliminating the only currently known domestic source of lithium to meet demands for combatting climate change and important to national security," the company's lawyers said.
Laura Granier representing Lithium Nevada, said Wednesday they can't get necessary permits to obtain water or build power lines until they've completed excavations at 21 historical sites. She said the extended delay "threatens the very project."
"The company is in the process of raising the financing to build the mine. Delay creates uncertainty. There are a number of shareholders on the phone listening to this hearing today," she said.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony said in its request to intervene the land is a place ancestors "hid from soldiers coming to force them on to reservations," and holds artifacts created by their ancestors before them.
It said the bureau has rejected its requests to postpone any trenching or construction activities "until meaningful government-to-government consultations" with all tribes connected to Thacker Pass.
The project recently won an unexpected endorsement from a respected, longtime environmental watchdog of mining operations in Nevada who concluded the "impacts from this mine are relatively benign."
"The environmental value of this lithium producing mine, however, is enormous," said Glenn Miller, a retired University of Nevada, Reno professor.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in Nevada last month the Biden administration wants to see lithium mined "in a responsible way" that respects the environment and Native American tribes.