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Biden Promised Electric Cars, Which Need Lithium. A Proposed Mine Is On Sacred Land


There's a federal court hearing tomorrow in Nevada stemming from the soaring demand for lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. A proposed lithium mine at the site of North America's largest deposit of the mineral is being fought by environmental and tribal activists. They say the land is sacred to some Native Americans. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Off a lonely highway in northern Nevada, a collection of brightly colored tents, a horse trailer and latrine suddenly comes into view, a stark contrast to the pale sagebrush-covered mountains.


SIEGLER: Closer in, the nylon tents flap in the near constant wind.

GARY MCKINNEY: Right here - I've been camped here for about a month and a half now.

SIEGLER: Gary McKinney of the Duck Valley Reservation wears black sunglasses, an American Indian Movement ski hat and tank top exposing tattooed arms.

MCKINNEY: This right here, man, this is a - we call it Thacker Pass - Peehee mu'huh.

SIEGLER: Peehee mu'huh means rotten moon in Paiute. He says it's the site of a massacre likely between warring tribes. Today, it's a sacred burial ground. The land is strewn with cultural artifacts, traditional foods and medicinal plants. It's also rich in lithium, the main reason McKinney and a few other protesters say they're staging an occupation on this public land where a massive lithium mine is proposed.

MCKINNEY: I'm prepared to stay out here and oppose this mine for as long as it takes - as long as it takes.

SIEGLER: If approved, the mine could increase U.S. lithium production tenfold. Demand is forecast to triple by 2025 as more automakers transition to electric engines.

MCKINNEY: We can't flush out all the water from out of here and rip up all the grass and the sagebrush and all everything that there is out here and flip it around and call it green energy. That's green washing.

JAN MORRISON: Those are catch phrases. And they probably, on the internet, make you maybe donate some money.

SIEGLER: Jan Morrison, the economic development officer in nearby Winnemucca, dismisses most of the mine's opposition as the Deep Green Resistance.

MORRISON: There's no question we're moving towards a society that's less intrusive on the Earth. And in order to do that, you have to figure out how to make it happen. And lithium is the key.

SIEGLER: The mine promises 1,500 construction jobs initially, then 300 more permanent. The Canadian mining firm Lithium Americas says it's also prioritizing training and hiring tribal members. CEO Jon Evans says for three years, they've been consulting with the local Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the closest reservation to the mine, and only this spring did it come up that some of the land is a sacred massacre site.

JONATHAN EVANS: We want to continue to have that consultation and input. And if there's new information, great. Let's get it out in the open and talk about it and figure out how we can work together to address any concerns.

SIEGLER: Tomorrow, a federal court will consider an injunction request to stop all preliminary work pending a broader lawsuit. Environmental groups and two tribes are challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's initial approval of the mine in the late hour of the Trump administration. Daranda Hinkey, a Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribal member, helped form People of Red Mountain, one of the groups that's suing.

DARANDA HINKEY: Maybe the BLM didn't know about the massacre that happened here is because indigenous people don't necessarily trust the BLM, the Bureau of Land Management, or things like that. But, you know, it's time to hear those voices.

SIEGLER: This battle will test the Biden administration, which installed the nation's first-ever Indigenous interior secretary, pledging to mend a legacy of mistrust of the U.S. government in Indian country. But on the other hand, the administration needs the lithium to shift from fossil fuels to electric vehicles.

HINKEY: I think it's maybe just to get, like, political gain and, you know, just like, oh, yeah, we are listening to people. But are you?

SIEGLER: The Department of Interior declined NPR's interview requests, but in court filings, the government says it made a reasonable effort to consult with tribes and that the initial mining exploration won't harm cultural resources. The company says it will reclaim the land as it goes. The Fort McDermitt tribe closest to the mine hasn't taken a formal stance. It's 1,200 members appear split and curious whether the protest up at the camp will escalate like at Standing Rock. Larina Bell understands concerns about protecting sacred land, but other mines here over the years helped the tribe and her family.

LARINA BELL: Well, I'm interested in it because I have three kids. My oldest one is 22, and he's willing to work, but then the thing is, there's no place to work here.

SIEGLER: Right now, there are only a few jobs with the tribe and school and the one grocery store, she says, so you have to leave the reservation for opportunity.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Fort McDermitt, Nev.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOD STAR SONG, "THE BALLAD OF EL GOODO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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