Skip to Content Facebook Feature Image

US advances review of Nevada lithium mine amid concerns over endangered wildflower

News

US advances review of Nevada lithium mine amid concerns over endangered wildflower
News

News

US advances review of Nevada lithium mine amid concerns over endangered wildflower

2024-04-23 12:06 Last Updated At:19:02

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The Biden administration has taken a significant step in its expedited environmental review of what could become the third lithium mine in the U.S., amid anticipated legal challenges from conservationists over the threat they say it poses to an endangered Nevada wildflower.

The Bureau of Land Management released more than 2,000 pages of documents in a draft environmental impact statement last week for the Rhyolite Ridge mine. Lithium is a metal key to the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles — a centerpiece of President Joe Biden's “green energy” agenda.

Officials for the bureau and its parent Interior Department trumpeted the news, saying the progress in the review of the lithium-boron mine project “represents another step by the Biden-Harris administration to support the responsible, domestic development of critical minerals to power the clean energy economy.”

“Federal agencies cooperating to solve issues efficiently while protecting vulnerable species and other irreplaceable resources is exactly how we will need to move forward if we’re going to produce these critical minerals in the United States,” said Steve Feldgus, deputy assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management.

Environmentalists vowing to fight the mine say it's the latest example of the administration running roughshod over U.S. protections for native wildlife and rare species in the name of slowing climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, described it as “greenwashing extinction.” The nonprofit conservation group first petitioned in 2019 for federal protection of the rare flower, Tiehm's buckwheat, which grows near the California line.

“We believe the current protection plan would violate the Endangered Species Act, so if BLM approves it as proposed, we almost certainly would challenge it,” he told The Associated Press last week.

Nevada is home to the only existing lithium mine in the U.S. and another is currently under construction near the Oregon line 220 miles (354 kilometers) north of Reno. By 2030, worldwide demand for lithium is projected to have grown six times compared to 2020.

The bureau said it published the draft review and opened public comment through June 3 for the new mine after Ioneer Ltd., the Australian mining company that’s been planning for years to dig for lithium at this site, adjusted its latest blueprint to reduce destruction of critical habitat for the plant, which exists nowhere else in the world.

Bernard Rowe, Ioneer’s managing director, said lithium production could begin as early as 2027. He said the company has spent six years adjusting their plans so the mine can co-exist with the plant, invested $2.5 million in conservation efforts and committed an additional $1 million annually to ensure the plant and its surrounding habitat are protected.

“Rhyolite Ridge will help accelerate the electric vehicle transition and secure a cleaner future for our children and grandchildren," Ioneer Executive Chairman James Calaway said.

In addition to scaling back encroachment on the 6-inch-tall (15-centimeter-tall) wildflower with yellow and cream-colored blooms, the strategy includes a controversial propagation plan to grow and transplant flowers nearby — something conservationists say won't work.

The plant grows in eight sub-populations that combined cover approximately 10 acres (4 hectares) — an area equal to the size of about eight football fields. They're located halfway between Reno and Las Vegas in a high-desert oasis of sorts for the plants and the insects that pollinate them.

The Fish and Wildlife Service added the flower to the list of U.S. endangered species on Dec. 14, 2022, citing mining as the biggest threat to its survival.

Less than a week later, the government published a formal notice of intent to begin work on the draft environmental impact statement. Three weeks after that, the Energy Department announced a $700 million conditional loan to Ioneer for the mining project it said could produce enough lithium to support production of about 370,000 electric vehicles annually for four decades.

The Center for Biological Diversity said a series of internal documents it obtained from the Bureau of Land Management through a request under the Freedom of Information Act show the administration has rushed its review of the mine.

Scott Distell, BLM's project manager in charge of the review, raised concerns about the expedited schedule in an email to his district boss when it suddenly was accelerated in December 2023.

“This is a very aggressive schedule that deviates from other project schedules on similar projects completed recently," Distell wrote in the Dec. 22 email.

The draft environmental impact statement lays out three different options for the project, including a “no-action alternative” that would mean no mine would be built. The one the bureau said it prefers anticipates Ioneer's protection plan would allow for direct destruction of about 22% of the plant's habitat in the 910 acres (368 hectares) the Fish and Wildlife Service designated as critical habitat when it listed it as endangered. That's down from an estimated 38% in an earlier version of the plan.

“For an extremely rare species confined to such a small area, no amount of destruction of its critical habitat is acceptable,” said Naomi Fraga, director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden.

Donnelly points to the Endangered Species Act's requirement that federal agencies consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service whenever a project could affect a threatened or endangered species to ensure it won't "result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat.”

“Reducing the destruction of this rare plant’s habitat from 38% to 22% is like cutting off one leg instead of both," Donnelly said. “They’re still dealing a fatal blow to this precious, rare wildflower.”

FILE - In this photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tiehm's buckwheat grows in the high desert in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, June 1, 2019, where a lithium mine is planned. Just days after U.S. wildlife officials declared the Nevada wildflower endangered at the site of a proposed lithium mine, federal land managers are initiating the final stage of permitting for the project the developer says will allow the mine and the flower to co-exist. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tiehm's buckwheat grows in the high desert in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, June 1, 2019, where a lithium mine is planned. Just days after U.S. wildlife officials declared the Nevada wildflower endangered at the site of a proposed lithium mine, federal land managers are initiating the final stage of permitting for the project the developer says will allow the mine and the flower to co-exist. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity, Mining impacts to Tiehm's buckwheat habitat in the high desert in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, June 1, 2019. Just days after U.S. wildlife officials declared the Nevada wildflower endangered at the site of a proposed lithium mine, federal land managers are initiating the final stage of permitting for the project the developer says will allow the mine and the flower to co-exist. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity, Mining impacts to Tiehm's buckwheat habitat in the high desert in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, June 1, 2019. Just days after U.S. wildlife officials declared the Nevada wildflower endangered at the site of a proposed lithium mine, federal land managers are initiating the final stage of permitting for the project the developer says will allow the mine and the flower to co-exist. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tiehm's buckwheat grows in the high desert in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, June 1, 2019, where a lithium mine is planned. The Biden administration has taken a significant step in its expedited environmental review of what's next in line to become only the third U.S. lithium mine, as conservationists fear it will lead to the extinction of the endangered Nevada wildflower near the California line. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tiehm's buckwheat grows in the high desert in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, June 1, 2019, where a lithium mine is planned. The Biden administration has taken a significant step in its expedited environmental review of what's next in line to become only the third U.S. lithium mine, as conservationists fear it will lead to the extinction of the endangered Nevada wildflower near the California line. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

FILE - This photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity shows a Tiehm's buckwheat plant near the site of a proposed lithium mine in Nevada, May 22, 2020. The Biden administration has taken a significant step in its expedited environmental review of what's next in line to become only the third U.S. lithium mine, as conservationists fear it will lead to the extinction of the endangered Nevada wildflower near the California line. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

FILE - This photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity shows a Tiehm's buckwheat plant near the site of a proposed lithium mine in Nevada, May 22, 2020. The Biden administration has taken a significant step in its expedited environmental review of what's next in line to become only the third U.S. lithium mine, as conservationists fear it will lead to the extinction of the endangered Nevada wildflower near the California line. (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, File)

Next Article

Fani Willis and judge presiding over Georgia Trump election case defeat challengers

2024-05-22 09:55 Last Updated At:10:00

ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the Georgia prosecutor who brought a sprawling racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and others, has won the Democratic primary in her bid for reelection.

Willis defeated progressive attorney Christian Wise Smith in the primary election and is now set to face off against Republican Courtney Kramer in the fall. Willis told reporters after her victory that the voters sent a message that “people want a DA that is just, that treats everybody equally and that works hard, and they know that they have that in me.”

Meanwhile, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, the judge who was randomly assigned to preside over the election interference case, also fended off a challenger, winning a nonpartisan election to keep his seat.

The Trump election case and racketeering cases against well-known rappers have boosted Willis’ public profile. But on Tuesday night she touted her efforts to fight violent crime by being tough on gang members while also saying she worked to give second chances to first offenders and created programs to catch at-risk youth before they get caught up in the criminal justice system.

“The people said yes to justice. The people said yes to safety. The people said yes to integrity. The people said yes to Fani Willis," Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said to applause Tuesday night at Willis' victory party.

With her name recognition, the advantages of incumbency and a hefty fundraising haul, Willis’ victory in the primary was not terribly surprising. As she moves on to the general election, the odds would seem to be in her favor as well. Fulton County includes most of the city of Atlanta and is heavily Democratic, about 73% of its voters having cast ballots for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

But Willis was taking nothing for granted after her primary win, telling supporters, “The campaign does not end tonight. It begins tonight.”

“My opponent is completely unqualified,” she said, later adding, “But while she is inexperienced and unqualified and does not represent the values of my county, don't get confused. She is a real threat because of who backs her and how they back her.”

Willis urged her supporters to continue to back her financially, noting that there was a store selling campaign merchandise onsite during her victory party.

Kramer, who has ties to some of Trump’s most prominent allies in Georgia and has drawn campaign contributions from both the county and state Republican parties, told reporters when she qualified to run that the Trump indictment prompted her to challenge Willis. In a post on the social media platform X earlier this month, she wrote, “The future of Fulton and safety in our community should not be controlled by self-interested politicians who use their office for political law fare. It’s time for a change.”

McAfee has been on the bench since last year when Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed him to fill an empty seat. He has since become one of the most high-profile judges in Georgia since he was randomly assigned last year to preside over the election interference case. With the added advantages of incumbency, strong bipartisan backing from heavy hitters and an impressive fundraising haul, he was the likely favorite to win.

Willis and Smith both worked in the Fulton County district attorney’s office under then-District Attorney Paul Howard. They both challenged their former boss in the Democratic primary in 2020. Willis and Howard advanced to a runoff that she won, and she ran unopposed in the November general election that year.

Kramer ran unopposed in the Republican primary Tuesday and has already been focusing her attention on attacking Willis. A lawyer who interned in the Trump White House, she has ties to some of the former president's prominent allies in Georgia.

Kramer and her backers will undoubtedly continue to focus on what even some of Willis' closest allies have seen as a major misstep — her romantic relationship with a special prosecutor she hired for the election case. Claims by defense attorneys in the case that the romance created a conflict of interest threatened to derail the prosecution.

McAfee ultimately ruled that it did not create a conflict of interest that should disqualify Willis, but he said she could only continue the case if the special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, stepped aside. Wade promptly left the case, but a defense appeal of McAfee's ruling is now pending before the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Wade was among those gathered at an event space in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood Tuesday evening to celebrate Willis' win.

Willis obtained an indictment in August against Trump and 18 others, accusing them of participating in an alleged illegal scheme to overturn Trump's narrow loss in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Four people have pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors. Trump and the 14 others who remain have pleaded not guilty.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens takes a photograph with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis before she speaks and after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens takes a photograph with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis before she speaks and after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates with supporters after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates with supporters after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

In this photo combination of file images, Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, left, while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photos/Alex Slitz)

In this photo combination of file images, Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, left, while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photos/Alex Slitz)

Recommended Articles