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Nevada rancher sues to block lithium mine near Oregon line

February 18, 2021 GMT

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A longtime Nevada rancher is suing U.S. regulators over the approval of a lithium mine on federal rangeland he says would violate environmental laws and undermine changes he has made in his own livestock grazing practices to help threatened fish and wildlife.

Edward Bartell and Bartell Ranch LLC say the Bureau of Land Management relied “entirely upon flawed and error-laden findings” in environmental assessments prepared by the mine’s own contractor.

Bartell maintains the review masks the real effects that he says would lower the groundwater table, harm the federally protected Lahontan cutthroat trout and imperiled greater sage grouse and “transform much of our private lands into barren desert.”

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A consultant for Lithium Nevada Corp., a subsidiary of the Canada-based Lithium Americas Corp., prepared “a one-sided, deeply-flawed” analysis of the project, according to the lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Reno.

“The project consultants relied upon grossly inaccurate, incomplete, and inadequate data for constructing baselines and models purporting to estimate impacts to water resources” caused by groundwater pumping associated with the mine, it said.

The lawsuit said the data flies in the face of earlier water reviews in the area by the bureau, trout population studies by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the bureau’s own grouse protection strategy.

“BLM has wholesale ignored the inconsistency of the mine with BLM’s sage grouse plans and associated regulations,” the lawsuit said, noting the project borders one of Nevada’s largest remaining populations of greater sage grouse.

Bureau spokeswoman Heather O’Hanlon said in an email the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Alexi Zawadzki, CEO of Lithium Nevada Corp., defended the bureau’s approval of its plans in a statement to AP Wednesday night.

“The environmental analysis confirmed the proposed mine would be constructed and operated in an environmentally responsible manner, and we are confident that the full environmental review and mitigation measures included in the (bureau’s decision) will address the concerns raised by this judicial review,” he said.

The Thacker Pass mine is planned on federal land above an extinct volcano formed millions of years ago about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the Nevada-Oregon line. It’s projected to produce 1,000 jobs during construction and 300 once completed, generating $75 million in state and local tax revenue over a decade.

The bureau issued a final environmental impact statement and record of decision approving the mine in December, subject to additional permitting at the state level.

In addition to robbing Bartell Ranch of its grazing and water rights in the high-desert, the lawsuit said the project threatens trout habitat that Bartell Ranch “has gone to great lengths to protect.”

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Among other things, Bartell has moved cattle away from fish habitat, altered grazing rotations and built fences to protect streams.

The agency’s refusal to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether the mine could harm trout is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, the lawsuit said. Lahontan cutthroat trout were listed as endangered in 1970 and are currently considered threatened.

Bartell Ranch was held to a higher standard when it joined with the bureau and the Fish and Wildlife Service to construct about 3,000 feet (914 meters) of fence in 2017 to keep cattle out of a creek with threatened trout.

While the bureau stopped short of launching a formal “Section 7 consultation” with the Fish and Wildlife Service, its environmental review of that project noted the fencing was consistent with a nearby fuels management project and that “USFWS concurred (the) project will not adversely affect Lahontan cutthroat trout.”

“This satisfies Section 7 consultation requirements for this project,” the bureau said at the time.

But when Bartell’s lawyers pressed the agency to explain why it didn’t consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about the much larger mining project, the lawsuit says its only response was that effects on trout “are not anticipated to occur from the project, therefore, no formal Section 7 consultation was required.”

That position is directly at odds with well-studied trout populations within the proposed area, the lawsuit says. It says the bureau acknowledged in other parts of its environmental impact statement that the mine could result in “modifications to existing water rights, the potential for mine-related groundwater aquifer drawdown, contamination of groundwater from unintended materials releases (spills) and the potential for adverse effects to groundwater.”