Yesterday, we traveled to Orovada for one of the Thacker Pass Scoping Meetings. The room was filled with people holding various roles from Lithium Nevada, their contracted company, the BLM, and about 25 members of the public. As Lithium Nevada gave a presentation outlining their plans for Thacker Pass, the speaker paused at the slide which detailed their project area in order to mention how the company’s original plans included mining into the Montana Mountains but that they have since altered these plans due to “hearing the community loud and clear” in disapproval of mining in that area. With that, he continued that this change of plans was a part of the company’s desire to be a good neighbor. Other parts of their efforts towards being a good neighbor include funding sagebrush restoration research, hosting community outreach events like open houses, and having an emphasis on consultation with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and a job training program that would enable community members to most benefit from employment opportunities. Lithium Nevada also really expressed transparency as a key component of their community engagement plan. However, feelings of the company’s lack of transparency towards the community arose to the top of concerns from multiple community members present on Thursday.
Community concern over Lithium Nevada’s lack of transparency seemed to stem from various places. For a few people, it came from feeling that the company had been inconsistent over time with what they told the public. As one man frustratedly stated, the last time he heard from the company, “a totally different picture was painted.” To another person, Lithium Nevada failed to be transparent because they would not clearly or explicitly state the negative consequences that would be produced by the project and left for the community to shoulder. Another man present, who regularly hunts in the area, was upset that the company stated during the presentation that a wildlife assessment revealed no sage grouse on the project area–even though he had recently seen many sage grouse there. He demanded to see the wildlife assessment. The company’s response to his demand and much of the other comments was that more specific information or reports regarding concerns would be put online eventually. This upset some people in the room further, as they felt they had been told various times already that questions or concerns would be answered at a later time but never properly were. Furthermore, being directed towards the internet to locate answers and navigate the lengthy (and often very technical) company documents by themselves in the future made some feel that important public information regarding the project was largely inaccessible. One woman stated with frustration that many of them in the room just wanted to be able to understand, implying that the company was not successfully supporting meaningful and cohesive public knowledge around the project. Someone else expressed frustration that the voices of community members were not really being listened to anyway, even in the space dedicated there for the public meeting, because he felt the company had “already made up its mind”…regardless of their comments. When Lithium Nevada reminded everyone that they were taking comments and explained again how to submit them, a couple people at the front of the room became very upset by how little time they actually had to formulate and submit their comments for the project.
Besides lack of transparency, another major area of contention at the meeting was over the fact that Lithium Nevada still holds mining claims in the Montana Mountains. When questioned about this, Lithium Nevada expressed strong concerns that another company would quickly take those claims if they just let go of them…and that the Montana Mountains would potentially be even less protected from extractive. They revealed a similar experience had happened already when they gave up previous claims of theirs on the Oregon side of the Montana Mountains.
On the more positive side, we discovered that Lithium Nevada has hired a community liaison from the Te-Moak tribe who told me after the meeting that she feels dedicated and passionate about participating in a strong consultation process and providing quality opportunities for people from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe (and also pointing to the training programs Lithium Nevada has in mind). Furthermore, it seems like the company has indeed upheld consultation with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe so far. From the conversations we had with Chairman Smart and a few others from the tribe in attendance, there was support for Lithium Nevada in their proposed project and excitement for the quality jobs/economic opportunities it would bring to community members.
When I asked the community liaison more about the specifics of their community engagement plan, she mentioned potential site visits to the project area in the spring. I plan to follow up with her about organizing a site visit open to the public. Beyond the potential for site visits, she also talked about the open houses they had last week and the fact that they are intending on having more of those in the future as well. She also said there were about 40 people one day (and 60 people the other day) from the communities who had attended their open houses last week. She then glanced at the few community members still in the building conversing after the meeting and said with a half-smile that the people here today were not at the open houses.
Prior to the public meeting, we were able to walk and look around the proposed Thacker Pass project area. Some of the things that particularly caught our attention were the activity of springs in the area, the beauty of the mountain ranges, and the sagebrush that was taller than any of us. A wildlife biologist we talked to after the meeting remarked how those mature sagebrush we saw contribute to very valuable winter habitat for the sage grouse.
Overall, our trip exposed the proposed Thacker Pass lithium project to be a complicated situation. We feel grateful, though, to have been able to hear concerns and begin to try to understand the different feelings, positive and negative, of the communities that will be most impacted by the project. And we have quite a few things to follow regarding the project. We will keep you updated!