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Tribes are suing to stop a proposed lithium mine in Nevada, saying the site is sacred


The fate of the biggest, planned lithium mine in the U.S. is now in the hands of a federal judge. The proposed mine is on a remote piece of federal land along the Nevada-Oregon border. It's seen as key to boosting domestic electric vehicle production. But some Native American tribes say the land is sacred, and they're suing to stop it. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Vocalizing).

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Tribal activists marching through the snowy streets of Reno this week led by a man holding a traditional eagle staff - elders carried signs reading, mining isn't green and keep your Indigenous rights.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Protect Peehee Mu'huh.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting) Protect Peehee Mu'huh.


SIEGLER: Peehee Mu'huh is the Paiute word for Thacker Pass, site of the proposed mine. It's also believed to be on sacred land, where an ancient massacre happened.


SIEGLER: For Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez, this 1.6 mile march to the federal courthouse is symbolic. After all, his people were once forced to march off their traditional land and onto reservations.


ARLAN D MELENDEZ: We want to protect the Mother Earth. We want to protect the - our animals, our sacred sites and just about everything that is our way of life.

SIEGLER: Inside the courtroom, lawyers for the tribes accused federal land managers of skirting environmental law and trying to greenlight the mine in the final days of the Trump administration. So far, the Biden administration has not moved to stall it. During a three-hour court hearing yesterday, the mining company Lithium Nevada's attorney, Laura Granier, said Congress required the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize developing critical minerals needed for the energy transition.


LAURA GRANIER: We are talking literally thousands of jobs, your honor, literally tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development.

SIEGLER: A government attorney insisted that the federal BLM followed all environmental laws carefully before issuing an initial permit. Thacker Pass is the largest known lithium deposit in the U.S. Industry analyst Cameron Perks of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence says the judge's decision will be a defining moment, setting the tone for whether lithium mining takes off in the U.S. or stays overseas, making the country more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.

CAMERON PERKS: This is a real industrial-revolution scale issue where we really have a completely new industry, and such a large one, and they all depend on batteries, which depend on lithium.

SIEGLER: This case puts the Biden administration in a bind. The country needs lithium to make its transportation system cleaner and reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change. But the president has also pledged to right historical wrongs in Indian country. That's not lost on Reno-Sparks Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez.

MELENDEZ: This is just the beginning. You know, I think we're going to be building larger coalitions, not just with this issue on Thacker Pass but the issues all across America, you know, where lands are being desecrated.

SIEGLER: The judge says she hopes to rule within the next two months. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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