Thacker Pass/Peehee Mu’huh
Callie Shanafelt Wong
April 18, 2023
The largest known lithium deposit in the United States is in Thacker Pass, on the site of a collapsed super volcano in northern Nevada, 25 miles from the Oregon border. Thacker Pass is also known as Peehee Mu’huh in Paiute, meaning Rotten Moon because of its crescent shape and also to honor the ancestors who died there in two massacres. The site is sacred to at least 22 tribes. Lithium Americas, operating as Lithium Nevada Corporation (LNC), is planning a lithium mine on nine acres of public land.
In 2021, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe, and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe filed a lawsuit to stop the mine. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful.
“Are we willing to sacrifice sacred sites, health and internal balance for short-term economic gains while giant corporations create unmeasurable wealth, deplete resources, and leave our future generations to endure the disorder the Thacker Pass mine would leave behind?” Shelley Harjo, Fort McDermitt Tribal Member wrote in a press release. “I will never believe this is the best method for greener living, nor do many other native people in our area.”
The Land and Its People
Thacker Pass is sacred to at least 22 tribes. According to the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony website, which represents the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe Tribes: “There are thousands of documented artifacts and cultural sites in Thacker Pass. Our ancestors used this pass as a travel route, obsidian collection area, and campsite for thousands of years. Paiute and Shoshone people have hunted deer and other wildlife, fished for Lahontan cutthroat trout, gathered food and medicinal plants, and practiced our spiritual ways here since time immemorial, and we continue to do so to the present day. Sacred places like Peehee Mu’huh are our history and future. Our ancestors are buried in Thacker Pass and our young people visit this land to learn about the history of our people.”
Thacker Pass is the site of two documented massacres. According to written history, on September 12, 1865, Company E of the 1st Nevada Cavalry attacked a Paiute camp in Thacker Pass and slaughtered at least 31—and possibly more than 50—men, women, children and elders as they fled deeper into the pass. This was during the Snake War when 60 percent of all Paiute people were killed. The second massacre, which gave this area its Paiute name of Peehee Mu’huh (Rotten Moon) was an inter-tribal conflict with a tribe from the west.
Diane Teeman, Director of the Culture & Heritage Department and Chairperson of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council is quoted in a press release: “Thacker Pass is known as a spiritually powerful place because of the presence of the remains of tribal Ancestors and their spirits. Our Paiute oral history tells us that we Paiutes have lived in this area since before the Cascade Mountains were formed. Our people follow our unwritten traditional tribal laws and philosophy of life which requires we respect all other living things, including plants, animals, minerals, and so on. Our traditional ways require that we live in reciprocity with all other things and never put ourselves as feeble humans above others. For this reason, our unwritten traditional tribal law requires we do everything in our power to protect it. Only the Tribe and its members can speak to the significance of an area to the Tribe.”
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
In an effort to stem climate change and reduce greenhouse emissions by transitioning from cars powered by fossil fuels to electric cars powered by lithium batteries, companies have been looking for sources of lithium. They’ve identified the largest known deposit in the United States, and the third largest in the world, at Thacker Pass, in part of the McDermitt Caldera. In 2018, after a year of exploration, LNC proposed an open-pit mine on nine acres of federal land. The company submitted the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in July of 2020. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed the EIS for the project in December 2020.
The mine was fast-tracked and approved on January 15, 2021, five days before the end of the Trump presidency, along with the copper mine at Oak Flat. This was an unprecedentedly quick turnaround from the release of the EIS to the approval of the mine permit.
Activists and tribes set up a protest camp immediately after the permit approval, which repeatedly delayed construction on the site. Lawsuits were filed and a media campaign sparked broad public concern. Activists with Protect Thacker Pass kept the protest camp going until October 2021.
President Biden has supported increased rare metal mining efforts, evoking the Defense Production Act to support lithium mining projects, in order to decrease US dependency on China’s resources.
In January 2023, General Motors agreed to invest $650 million in Lithium Americas (based in Vancouver, British Columbia) to develop the Thacker Pass mine. GM agreed to buy all of the lithium from Thacker Pass when the mine opens—projected for 2026—an estimated 40,000 tons per year.
In February 2021, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe, and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe tribes filed a lawsuit to delay the project. The lawsuit centers on the lack of tribal consultation. The tribes make three claims. First, that the BLM withheld crucial information from the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office and lied about tribal consultation. The BLM says they sent letters to three of the 22 tribes connected to the area, but can’t show any evidence of a response. Tribes throughout the country have argued for years that notification is not adequate consultation. Secondly, the tribes say the company lied about the scope of the work, and that the BLM is allowing the company to do preliminary construction that is harming traditional cultural properties. In total, the lawsuit contends that the BLM has violated the Federal Land Policy Management Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and is also guilty of Breach of Contract.
There is also broader support to protect Thacker Pass. The Winnemucca Indian Colony tried to join the lawsuit but the Judge determined it was too late for them to join. The National Congress of American Indians and the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada have passed resolutions opposing the Thacker Pass lithium mine. Regional tribes, including the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, have strongly opposed the Thacker Pass mine in consultation with BLM and other agencies.
Some on the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Council support the mine as welcome economic development in an area where 40 percent of the population live in poverty. There has been some back and forth with the tribal council first approving and then rescinding support for the mine after tribal citizens presented them with a petition to try to block the project. But after the company offered a community benefits package, the tribal council signed on. The company signed a Community Benefits Agreement with the tribe in October 2022. The agreement says the company will provide training and employment opportunities, cultural education and preservation, and build an 8,000-square-foot community center for the tribe, which would include a daycare, preschool, playground, cultural facility and communal greenhouse.
Many of the tribal citizens opposed to the project have joined the People of Red Mountain organization, which is also taking action to block the project.
In March 2023, Judge Miranda Du denied the lawsuit and LNC is currently proceeding with the project despite ongoing appeals.
According to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, “The proposed Thacker Pass Lithium Mine would consist of open-pit mining and lithium processing operations. Using ore crushing, acid leaching, and processing methods, the mine would produce lithium carbonate — which would be turned into battery-grade lithium products. The mine would include an acid plant that will use sulfuric acid for leaching. This would also generate steam to power the mine.”
Jonathan Evans, CEO and president of Lithium Americas, says that when the Thacker Pass mine is fully operational it will produce 80,000 tons of lithium carbonate yearly, enough to power 1.5 million electric cars, and meet one-fifth of the nation’s lithium demand by 2030. They plan to operate the mine for 40 years.
The Protect Thacker Pass website points out that “they will build a sulfuric acid plant at the site to convert molten sulfur into sulfuric acid to leach the lithium from clay stone. Following the leaching, the lithium-bearing solution is purified using crystallizers and reagents to produce battery-grade Li2CO3. Hundreds of tons of sulfur (waste from oil refineries) will be trucked in and burned every day at the mine site (roughly 75 semi-loads of sulfur a day). This in turn will produce thousands of tons of sulfuric acid every day, up to 5800 tons a day.”
A local Orovada rancher, Ed Bartell, filed a lawsuit as soon as the project was permitted, alleging the proposed mine violates the Endangered Species Act by harming Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and would cause irreparable harm to springs, wet meadows and water tables. A month later, four environmental organizations—Basin and Range Watch, Great Basin Resource Watch, Wildlands Defense, and Western Watersheds Project—also filed a suit alleging that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, and other laws.
The movement to protect Thacker Pass has continued to garner support despite legal setbacks. In September of 2021, more than 100 mine opponents gathered at Thacker Pass to commemorate the 156-year anniversary of the September 12, 1865 massacre. There continue to be rallies, protests and prayer runs in Orovada, Winnemucca, Reno, Carson City, and at Thacker Pass.
“Global warming is a serious problem and we cannot continue burning fossil fuels, but destroying mountains for lithium is just as bad as destroying mountains for coal,” writes Max Wilbert of Protect Thacker Pass in a press release. “You can’t blow up a mountain and call it green.”
What You Can Do
You can join the campaign at Protect Thacker Pass
Their website has multiple suggestions of ways you can help them achieve their goals, and makes four demands aimed at government agencies:
- Rescind the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project Permit
- Designate the September 12, 1865 Thacker Pass Massacre Site and the Thacker Pass Traditional Cultural District under the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)
- Withdraw Thacker Pass from federal mine leasing
- Reduce our nation’s dependence on cars as part of an emergency shift to a “degrowth” economic paradigm
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Daly, Matthew. “Joe Biden’s mining boost may not have quick payoff.” Associated Press, May 2, 2022
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