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Appeals court to hear challenges to lithium mine from environmentalists, tribes


Western Native American tribes are in court today in Southern California trying to stop construction on a would-be lithium mine. If completed, the mine would be the largest in the country, and it's designed to dig up a valuable metal used in things like the batteries on our smartphones. But the federal ground where this mine is being constructed - it's sacred land to Native Americans. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At Thacker Pass near the Nevada-Oregon border, activists staged a month-long protest this spring, frequently standing in the middle of a road, blocking Lithium Nevada's initial construction work. In this Facebook video, Max Wilbert points toward the rocky, sage brush-covered mountains believed to be the site of a bloody massacre of Paiute people by the U.S. Cavalry.


MAX WILBERT: Over the last two months, Lithium Nevada has been bulldozing directly through that massacre site, destroying the artifacts.

SIEGLER: Wilbert, who founded Protect Thacker Pass, points down to Dorece Sam, an elder from the nearby Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes. She's standing stoically in the middle of the dirt road, holding an eagle staff.


DORECE SAM: You know, Mother Earth - what they're digging for here, those are her jewels.

SIEGLER: The jewel here is lithium, a key component for electric vehicle batteries and considered a strategic mineral by the U.S. government. Reno-Sparks Indian Colony chairman Arlan Melendez says once again, Native people are being asked to get out of the way for American progress.

ARLAN MELENDEZ: It's almost like we're going backwards in the respect that Native Americans are getting as far as those sacred sites, you know?

SIEGLER: Melendez's small tribe has played a big role in the court battles to stop the mine, which was initially approved by the Trump administration and supported by the Biden administration. Lithium Nevada, which declined an interview request citing today's court hearing, has said it's followed all federal environmental laws, and the company is hiring workers from local tribes.


SIEGLER: Twenty-five-hundred miles away from the remote high desert, in New York City, Lithium Nevada's lead attorney recently spoke at this mine financing conference. She predicted the company will be clear of all legal hurdles by summer, and the mine will be fully operational soon after. At the conference, metallurgist Corby Anderson with the Colorado School of Mines listened to that with interest.

CORBY ANDERSON: If we don't permit and get this mine going, what happens to the next one? Do we wait ad infinitum? Meanwhile, there's these stakes in the ground to create electric vehicles and require their use. Yeah, we're going to have to go somewhere to get the lithium.

SIEGLER: Thacker Pass puts the Biden administration in a bind. They need lithium for the energy transition. But the president's interior secretary, Deb Haaland, the country's first-ever Indigenous cabinet member, frequently touts, in speeches like this, that Indian country finally has a seat at the table on lands decisions.


DEB HAALAND: Because their voices, perspectives and knowledge deserve respect.

SIEGLER: The Interior Department declined NPR's interview request. A frustrated Arlan Melendez of the Reno-Sparks Colony says they've yet to get Haaland's ear.

MELENDEZ: We want her to come out here at least to explain to the tribes as to what she can do, you know, besides remaining silent on it.

SIEGLER: It's looking less likely that tribes are going to be able to stop or even delay the lithium mine for more studies of its cultural impacts. That frustration boiled over June 7 at Thacker Pass.



SIEGLER: This video posted to Facebook shows an activist confronting a company man driving a large dozer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You have fun swinging that equipment at Native American people protecting their burial sites?

SIEGLER: Local authorities made arrests for trespassing, and now the company has sued the activists. It's yet another court battle that may take months to play out, even after today's separate appeal is resolved.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.