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Nevada lithium mine could destroy rare wildflowers, conservationists say

In the early hours of June 1, 2019, a pair of scientists trekked into a desert mountain to see a rare wildflower for the first time.

“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity. These yellow, cream-colored flowers were hitting just as the sun was rising. And we could see the whole species from one place.”

In the background, a construction vehicle rolls over the ridge. The early rumblings of mining exploration seemed to Donnelly a clear threat to the population of the flower known as Tiham’s buckwheat.

His hiking partner, botanist Naomi Fraga, estimates there are only 16,000 of these wildflowers left — all within about 10 acres on a hill in Nevada’s Esmerelda County. According to Fraga, Donnelly and hundreds of other scientists who let the federal government set up shop for a lithium mine on public land, those thousands of flowers could drop to nothing. A fight with Australian mining company Ioneer.

Tiehm's Buckwheat Flower

Tiehm’s Buckwheat Flower

Patrick Donnelly

The company’s Rhyolite Ridge mine will help supply raw materials for Ford and Toyota’s electric vehicle batteries. And the current flashpoint in a string of battles across the country over what level of environmental damage can be tolerated in the name of the Green Revolution.

The Bureau of Land Management completed the first phase of its evaluation of the controversial mining permit case this month, with a final decision on which one could go first expected by early next year. Lithium mining In America.

Federal officials are scrutinizing Aionier’s plans to conserve Tyhm’s buckwheat, which has been protected by the Endangered Species Act since January of this year.

If it goes Ioneer’s way, the mine could begin production in 2026 and pull enough lithium from the ground to supply about 400,000 electric vehicles each year for nearly half a century, according to company officials. Automotive companies use lithium in their batteries because it is a lightweight metal that can pack a lot of energy and can be easily recharged.

Fraga and other conservationists acknowledge that lithium mines are crucial to the effort To reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. But they say they want companies like Ioneer to pursue metals in ways that cause as little damage to surrounding habitats as possible.

“I would hope that people would think that electric cars shouldn’t come at the cost of extinction,” Fraga said.

A group of concerned scientists say that Ionair’s current mining plan puts lithium production so close to Tyhm’s buckwheat that all the dust thrown up during construction and mining will make it harder for the plant to photosynthesize or reproduce, because the insects that pollinate it will be disturbed. . Without a one-mile buffer protecting eight dense patches of yellowwood from mining activity, scientists say the species will not survive.

Ioneer insists his mine can coexist with Tiehm’s buckwheat on Rhyolite Ridge, with more than $1 million spent on consultation with botanists and conservation research. The company said it has already developed plans to distance mining activity from the trees as much as possible, while still allowing the company to tap metal deposits. To control the dust, they plan to invest in monitoring systems and chemical systems to limit what reaches the flowers, according to Bernard Rowe, Ioneer’s managing director.

“We’re thinking about sending people to Mars and we can’t control the dust?” Rowe said. “Mining has an impact on the environment, but we have to minimize it. I think in this case, it’s a reasonably straightforward thing.”

In January the US Energy Department pledged $700 million to help Ioneer develop its Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine, subject to a successful environmental review. The White House has been supporting mines that contribute to electric vehicle production with money approved in bipartisan infrastructure deals. The administration argues that America’s energy independence and national security depend on a green supply chain. Currently, a few countries including Australia, Chile and China dominate the global lithium market.

In a recent case involving a Nevada lithium mine 350 miles north of Rhyolite Ridge, a judge ruled that construction could begin at the Thacker Pass mine, even though some environmentalists and members of a Native American tribe argued it could contaminate groundwater and degrade the land. . Threatened animals like sage grouse and golden eagle.

In her decision, US District Judge Miranda Du wrote that mining company Lithium America had successfully argued, “If nothing else, there is a tension between the macro-environmental benefits and micro (relatively speaking) environmental harms that the project may result in.”

The climate has already changed Wildlife is driving a global decline, that is only supposed to be worse. The International Energy Agency, IEA, says that lithium mining projects will struggle to meet global climate targets unless they triple before 2050. Already, demand for lithium is growing rapidly; In the past year, the cost per ton of the metal—sometimes called “white gold”—has tripled to about $37,000, according to research by the United States Geological Service.

Donnelly said the Center for Biological Diversity would sue if the government allowed the proposed Ionian mine.

“Buckwheat may seem like this obscure wildflower on a hillside in the middle of nowhere in Nevada,” Donnelly said, “but biodiversity puts food on our plates and clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.”

Since the first hike in the summer of 2019, Fraga and Donnelly have made multiple trips to see Tiehm’s buckwheat in its natural habitat. Donnelly visits at least once a month. And Fraga has made the same trip up Rhyolite Ridge more than 40 times — a 12-hour round trip from his home in California.

“This buckwheat is important because I think life is important, and it represents a unique form of life on the planet,” Fraga said.

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