Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project Threatens to Bring Tiehms Buckwheat to Extinction
The Current Status
An Australian corporation, Ioneer, has begun exploration activities on Rhyolite Ridge, located in Esmeralda County (NV) within the Silver Peak Mountain Range for a proposed lithium mine.
The Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project will likely bring Tiehm’s Buckwheat, which has only been found to exist on 21 acres in the world, to extinction. There are 6 populations in total of the rare plant, and two of these populations are located directly within the area of the planned open-pit i.e. they would be obliterated. The remaining 4 populations of the buckwheat would be next to the mine’s rock storage, which would pose a major disruption to the plant’s already limited habitat. Due to the high likelihood of the species’ extinction if the mine goes through, the Center For Biological Diversity petitioned for an Emergency Endangered Species listing of Tiehm’s Buckwheat. It was denied this Federal Emergency Endangered Species listing to instead be given state-level protections, which have not yet been developed. Meanwhile and unfortunately, the mining company’s exploration activities and their subsequent road construction have already threatened to disrupt the buckwheat. The Center for Biological Diversity is taking further legal actions to attempt to protect the plant. Click here for an update from the first week of January 2020 regarding their efforts.
In June 2021, an exciting update and small victory for the Tiehm’s Buckwheat happened when the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service announced a finding that indicated the protection of the flower as a threatened or endangered species was warranted. (This comes as a result of deep efforts from the Center for Biological Diversity and a great deal of people concerned about the flowers’ continuation). With this recent finding by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, it is likely that Tiehm’s Buckwheat will be officially listed by September 2022. Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity speaks about what this recent decision means for the Rhyolite Ridge Project: “But what of the mine? Is this the end? Well no. BLM put their NEPA process for the mine on hold earlier this year, and the current status of that is unknown. The Service made it clear that if the mine was permitted as proposed, and the plant was listed, they would not go along with the project. So it seems impossible to imagine that Rhyolite Ridge mine goes forward as currently planned. At best, Ioneer needs to go back to the drawing boards and come up with a new plan for the mine that avoids the buckwheat.”
GBRW’s Further Concerns with the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project
Besides the major issue about Tiehms Buckwheat’s inability to survive if the mine gets developed, Great Basin Resource Watch is also concerned by the fact that Ioneer does not have to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement for the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project. Because their initial proposal for the project is less than one square mile, the company only has to complete an Environmental Assessment, which is a less in-depth evaluation of the impacts of their proposed project at Rhyolite Ridge. The fact that they are bypassing the full EIS is particularly worrisome because it means they are able to set a precedent with the Environmental Assessment, potentially which will allow for less social-environmental accountability accompanying future expansions with the project.
After a team from GBRW and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada visited the proposed mine site and met with the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission at the beginning of December, potential concern also arose around the impact the lithium project could have on Fish Lake Hot Springs located just below the mine’s drainage. This will need to be further investigated and discussed with the nearby tribes for whom the Fish Lake Hot Springs is potentially culturally significant.
For a reflection from our visit to the Rhyolite Ridge site and meeting of Tiehm’s buckwheat in person, visit here.
Additional Details and Background
Ioneer has proposed to mine Rhyolite Ridge for 30 years, but it is likely the lifetime of the mine will be longer.
Lithium can be mined in two main ways principally: open-pit mining and lithium brine extraction. The Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project is a proposed open-pit project, meaning there are many potential issues similar to those with other open-pit hard-rock mining operations (as with gold or copper). Furthermore, there are plans for an onsite sulfuric acid plant at the site which an “approximately 3,500 tons of sulfuric acid a day are anticipated to be produced by the acid plant for the leach process” (NS Energy).
There is a rapidly growing need for metals such as lithium in order to meet renewable energy goals (for batteries, solar panels, wind mills, etc). Currently, most of the world’s lithium comes from the region of large salt flats in South America known as the “Lithium Triangle.” The only functioning lithium mine in the United States is in Nevada, and an increase of lithium mining in the state is likely to occur–especially considering the fact that lithium has recently been listed as one of the “35 minerals deemed critical to U.S National Security and the Economy.”
Images from Silver Peak Mine (NV), the only functioning lithium mine in the United States. It is a lithium brine extraction project, which is the type of lithium mining that occurs in places where the desired lithium is suspended in water. This water is pumped from the aquifer and placed in various evaporation ponds, leaving the land looking like this.
Due to the combination of this listing, the increased need for the metal for renewable energy technologies, and the fact that there is only one currently functioning lithium mine in the United States, the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project is likely just the beginning of many proposed lithium mines in Nevada. Keeping this in mind, GBRW will certainly be keeping an eye on lithium and advocating for its being mined in the most socially and environmentally responsible way. And as far as the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project goes, bringing a species to extinction in order to meet the country’s growing lithium need does not seem to fit within the realm of responsible lithium extraction.