RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge has denied environmentalists' request for a court order temporarily blocking the government from digging trenches for archaeological surveys at a mine planned near the Nevada-Oregon line with the biggest known U.S. deposit of lithium.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said in an 11-page ruling late Friday in Reno that four conservation groups failed to prove the trenches planned across a total of one-quarter acre (.10 hectare) would cause irreparable harm to sage brush that serves as critical habitat for imperiled sage grouse.
She said she plans to rule later this week on a request from a Nevada tribe to join the legal battle as an intervenor and seek a similar restraining order based on claims the digging would disturb sacred burial grounds.
Du emphasized she has placed the overall case on an expedited schedule and intends to issue a ruling on the merits by early next year. She noted any construction of the mine itself is unlikely to begin before the snow melts in the spring of 2022.
“Given the limited, speculative evidence of imminent harm plaintiffs presented, they have failed to meet their burden to show they will be irreparably harmed in the absence of a preliminary injunction as the parties await the court’s merits decision,” she wrote.
Lithium Nevada Corp.’s proposed Thacker Pass mine is emerging as a key battleground in the debate over environmental trade-offs tied to President Joe Biden’s push for renewable energy.
Lithium is a key component in electric vehicle batteries.
Opponents say the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated several environmental laws in a December rush to approve the mine in the final days of the Trump administration.
The mine is planned on 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) of federal land above an extinct volcano formed millions of years ago about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the Nevada-Oregon line.
Global demand for lithium is forecast to triple by 2025, Lithium Nevada said in recent court filings. The proposed mine is the only one in the nation on the drawing board that can help meet that demand, the company said.
Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch and others said in their lawsuit filed earlier this year that some of the region’s most essential and irreplaceable sage grouse habitat could be lost if the mine is built. They say the bureau also has dismissed potential harm to golden eagles and destruction of pronghorn antelope habitat.
John Hadder, executive director of the resource watch, said Monday they were disappointed in the judge's ruling.
“But mine construction is not slated to begin until next year and the court stated that it would rule on the merits of the case by then,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. "Due to the various legal errors in the BLM’s review and approval of the mine, we look forward to briefing on the merits of the case in the coming months.”
Justice Department lawyers representing the Bureau of Land Management told Du during a hearing last week the company can't begin construction of the mine until it completes a historic properties treatment plan in conjunction with the agency and obtains several outstanding permits from the state of Nevada.
Du said in her ruling that the plans for excavations and collection of data at 21 historic properties calls for two to 25 holes to be dug by hand at each site — along with seven mechanical trenches at some sites up to a few meters deep and 40 meters (130 feet) long.
She said the harm described by opponents “is more speculative than specific and not specifically tied to any of the actual sites that may be excavated” in conjunction with the historic properties treatment plan.
They assume the digging will involve destruction of sagebrush, “but that is not necessarily true,” Du wrote, especially because they don't know the specific location of the planned trenches because the sites have been kept confidential.
She also noted that Lithium Nevada has committed to provide 60 days advance notice before it commences any significant ground disturbance at the mine site.
Lawyers for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Western Watersheds Project said in new a joint motion last week the agency also is violating the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to consult with tribal members about plans to the dig the trenches at the site where Native Americans were slaughtered in the late 1800s.
The bureau said in a new court filing Monday they don't oppose granting the colony intervenor status but lawyers for Lithium Nevada said they do.
The company said in an opposition motion Monday the agency invited the colony to consult with them on July 12.
It said the colony's decision to file its motion last week “17 hours before” the federal hearing on the injunction sought by conservationists is ”inexcusable considering the BLM has spent years reviewing the project."
The review has included “substantial consultation” with local tribes that never raised any similar concerns while the company spent $10 million on the permitting process in an effort to move to the next stage of development and production, the company's lawyers wrote.
This story has been corrected to show the tribe is seeking status as an intervenor, not a co-plaintiff.