Image courtesy of Max Wilbert

Opinion

To the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, and to the public.

My name is Max Wilbert. I am a community organizer, author, wilderness guide, and photographer, and I reside in Oregon. For the last 11 months, I have dedicated my life to protecting Thacker Pass. I am submitting a public comment regarding the Water Pollution Control Permit for Thacker Pass by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) on December 8th, 2021 via electronic mail. I submitted a spoken public comment regarding the Mine Reclamation permit at the virtual NDEP public comment event on December 1, 2021, and I look forward to NDEP’s response.

Like many people, I am deeply concerned about the Thacker Pass lithium mine and its impacts on the land, air, water, and people. I also have broader political and social concerns about the truth or falsehood of claims that lithium mining and a transition to electric vehicles will result in meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. I documented these claims in detail in my book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, which includes a chapter on energy storage.

In that book, I wrote of the “land clearance; explosives; fleets of heavy machinery; truckloads of industrial solvents like sulfuric acid; water contamination; and high energy use for furnaces” required for clay lithium mining. I wrote about communities in Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Chile which have been grievously harmed by lithium mining drawing down water tables, destroying habitat, and leaving behind heavily polluted water. I quoted one member of a Chilean delegation on lithium mining as saying that ““Like any mining process it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells. This isn’t a green solution—it’s not a solution at all.”

One report from Meridian International Research even casts doubt on the idea that there is even enough economically recoverable lithium in the world to power an EV transition. 

Image courtesy of Max Wilbert

Nonetheless, according to one mining company CEO, “The future demand for lithium is truly staggering…. Battery demand is rising at the rate of one to two new lithium mines per year, growing to two to three mines per year by 2020.” There are thousands of mining claims for lithium in the state of Nevada. It’s been described in the mining press as a “feeding frenzy.”

This region is on the chopping block as a new wave of industry sweeps the state. It is a new gold rush, and this is the sacrifice zone.

Meanwhile, Nevada is the driest state in the country. The Orovada Subarea Hydrographic Basin is currently overallocated by 30,271 acre-feet per year. That’s nearly 10 billion gallons. NDEP needs to be overseeing reductions in water use, conservation, restoration of watersheds and wetlands, and other measures to actually protect the environment, not facilitate its pollution and destruction.

Please indulge me for a moment while I share some history that informs my views on this matter. This is not the first time the United States has rapidly adopted a new transportation technology in hopes of avoiding a pollution issue. In fact, one of the biggest public health problems in cities of the 18th and 19th centuries was horse manure. The Times of London, for example, predicted in 1894 that by 1950 every street in London would be covered in nine feet of equine feces, while people in New York City believed that by 1930 horse manure would be piled even higher, up to third-story windows in Manhattan. “The stench,” according to urban planning export Eric Morris, “was omnipresent.”

At dusk
Two hundred birds fly overhead
The sound of their wings carrying
Across the sagebrush
As darkness falls
The coyotes begin the eulogy
For the fallen
And now it is dawn
And the sun rises once again
– image and poem: Max Wilbert

At the time, the economy was dependent on horses. They dragged plows, skidded logs, pulled carts and carriages, and transported individuals. In the late 1800s, when urban horses were at their peak, about 15 million acres—an area the size of West Virginia—were needed to grow horse feed.

The introduction of railroads was widely hailed as a technological solution to the horse problem. But instead, rail made these issues worse. More efficient transit by rail allowed more trade to take place, and since every item shipped by rail needed to be picked up and delivered by horse-drawn wagon, overall demand for horse transport and thus the scale of the problem went up.

New technologies don’t always displace older problems; sometimes they just pile on top.

What finally did replace horse transportation was the automobile, which by 1912 outnumbered horses in many American states. Aided by new regulations on urban horses, cars took over the streets and were proclaimed to be an environmental savior.

According to Morris, “Neither draconian regulations nor disincentives for travel were necessary to fix the horse pollution problem.

Human ingenuity and technology did the job—and at the same time they brought a tremendous increase in mobility.”

But at what cost? Far from a triumphal tale about ingenuity and technology, the story of automobiles solving the problem of horse poop could be read as a cautionary tale on the perils of escalations in technology, and more fundamentally on the tendency within this culture to sidestep problems rather than solve them. In this case, the problem was not addressed; it was just transformed. Instead of feces-filled streets, we now have smog-filled skies and a greenhouse-gas-filled climate. Trashing mountains, forests, wetlands, and prairies to provide food for horses was replaced with trashing mountains, forests, wetlands, and prairies to provide steel to Henry Ford’s factories, and oil for the automobiles.

Now, in the face of a car culture that’s ruining the climate, the response is to sidestep the issue again by developing technologies that will once more displace the destruction, not eliminate it.

I recognize that NDEP is not traditionally responsible for setting policy and has a limited remit in these matters. Yet, every agency and government has a fiduciary duty to the people. According the constitution of the state of Nevada, “All political power is inherent in the people.” NDEP, like all other governments, is responsible for protecting the interests of people and communities, as well protecting in public trust the air, water, land, and non-human biotic communities which produce oxygen, filter water, create food and otherwise make life possible for human beings and other life. 

I must admit, I am not optimistic that NDEP employees will do the right thing. The law as currently written is constrictive. Yet, as we accelerate deeper into the 6th mass extinction, the climate crisis, and the pollution crisis, and as ecosystems around the planet, from the sagebrush steppe to coral reefs to sequoia forests crumble, all people on Earth have a moral responsibility to act directly to halt the destruction of the planet. Our well-being and the lives of future generations depend on it. Rather than sitting back and comfortably collecting the salary of a government bureaucrat, I challenge you to take risks. Be bold. Have courage. Yes, there are costs associated with this. But action is the only way out of this nightmare.

Thacker Pass, or Peehee Mu’huh as it is known in Paiute, is a very special place ecologically, culturally, and historically. It is a sacred site and the site of at least one massacre. There are bones in the soil there. How would you feel if you were asked to permit a mining operation on the graveyard where the remains of your grandmothers and grandfathers rested? 

I urge the NDEP to respect the community, the sacred ceremonial site of Peehee Mu’Huh, and deny the Water Pollution Control and Mine Reclamation permits. Please inform me via email when you have responded to this comment.

Sincerely,

Max Wilbert

Co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.


The Sierra Nevada Ally has been selected to receive $20,000 in matching funds from NewsMatch 2021 for our dedication to serving our residents with local news about issues that impact their lives and support civic engagement. 

NewsMatch 2021 is a fundraising initiative sponsored by The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN). We are a full member of INN, one of only two such publishers in Nevada. Between now and December 31, 2021, your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar.

We are on a journey of steady growth and innovation. In 2022, we will expand our newsroom and launch new creative partnerships to amplify our residents’ voices and surface community members’ stories, questions, and concerns. Our goal – provide information relevant to our readers’ needs.

Double your support for The Sierra Nevada Ally with a gift today.

Donate here.

On behalf of all of us at the Sierra Nevada Ally, thank you for your generous support.

Joe McCarthy, General Manager