US judge won’t block massive lithium mine on Nevada-Oregon line

RENO, Nev. — A federal judge has again sided with the Biden administration and a Canadian-based mining company in a lengthy legal battle against environmentalists and tribal leaders trying to block a massive lithium mine in Nevada near the Oregon line.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno denied the opponents’ request Friday for an emergency injunction to prohibit work on the nation’s largest known lithium deposit until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears their latest appeal.

His ruling clears the way for Lithium Americas’ subsidiary Lithium Nevada to begin construction as early as next week on a mine it says will speed up production of critical raw materials for electric vehicle batteries. to combat climate change.

Opponents say the mine would destroy vital wildlife habitat and sacred cultural treasures, contaminate groundwater and pollute the air.

The conflict is driven largely by what Du described Friday as “tension” between environmental and economic trade-offs related to efforts to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases to clean, renewable ones. energy sources. It also advances legal interpretations of reaching a 150-year-old mining law that will eventually become more burdensome on mining companies.

His new ruling marks the third time in two years that he has refused to grant orders sought by conservationists, Native American tribes and a Nevada rancher who lives near the mine 200 miles (322 kilometers) away. northeast of Reno.

Opponents argued in their request for an emergency court order last week that without it, the developer would begin tearing up a high desert sea of ​​sagebrush that holds some of the most critical habitat. which is still not enough for the declining sage grouse in the West.

Du said he denied the latest request because he concluded the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail in an appeal challenging his Feb. 6 ruling that found the Bureau of Land Management had complied with federal law – with one exception – when it approved plans for the Thacker Pass mine in January 2021.

Du said in Friday’s 11-page ruling that he understood when he issued his decision earlier this month that it meant that “Lithium Nevada could begin construction of the project, and thereby disrupt the sagebrush ecosystem within the area of project.”

“The court expects that Lithium Nevada will unfortunately soon begin tearing up the sage brush that will not grow for a long time,” he wrote.

Du said that the government and Lithium Nevada argued that the project “is balanced, will be beneficial to the environment because the lithium produced from the mine can be used for various clean technologies.”

“And there is, if nothing else, a tension between the macro environmental benefits that may result from the project and the micro (relatively speaking) environmental harm that is likely to flow from” allowing the mine to proceed, he said. “This court cannot resolve that tension here.”

The environmentalists’ latest challenge centers on extending mining rights granted under the 1872 Mining Law to adjacent lands where a developer plans to dump waste rock and tailings — in this case, 1,300 acres. (526 hectares) where waste is dumped from an open pit mine as deep as the length of a football field.

Last year, in a potentially precedent-setting ruling, the 9th Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that revoked the Forest Service’s permit to mine Rosemont Copper in Arizona because the service failed to build — or even to think – if the company has valid rights where the waste disposal is planned.

The service and the Bureau of Land Management have long maintained the same mining rights automatically extended to those lands.

Du said in his Feb. 6 ruling that he adopted the 9th Circuit’s new standard, but instead of vacating the BLM’s approval of the Thacker Pass mine, he ordered the agency to go back and determine whether such right is in the neighboring land.

Opponents of the mine said that instead of allowing the BLM to revisit the matter and “fix its mistake,” it should have ordered a “wholesale re-evaluation” of the entire mining project.

Because the company does not have the right to dump waste on neighboring lands, the BLM “approved what is now half of a mine,” they said in their final brief filed Thursday.

Without the order, Lithium Nevada “will consider itself free to blast and excavate the mine pit, build a sulfuric acid processing plant and build other facilities on thousands of acres of public land, to produce waste rock and tailings without legal disposal,” they said.

Du said Friday that he allowed the BLM to revisit the matter because the 9th Circuit’s latest interpretation of the law came more than a year after the agency approved the Thacker Pass mine, and in part because “there is a serious possibility that the BLM will fix its mistake.”

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