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Internal BLM email raises questions about lithium mine review

By Hannah Northey | 06/07/2024 01:48 PM EDT

A supervisor voiced concern about a Nevada project’s NEPA study advancing “without any edits or comments that need to be addressed.”

In the Rhyolite Ridge, a patch of Tiehm’s buckwheat is bisected by a road built by a mining company near the proposed site of a lithium mine.

In the Rhyolite Ridge, a patch of Tiehm’s buckwheat is bisected by a road built by a mining company near the proposed site of a lithium mine. M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

A senior Bureau of Land Management official warned the federal government might be rushing the review of a controversial lithium mine in Nevada that’s at the center of a raging fight over an endangered wildflower, according to an internal email.

“This is a very aggressive schedule that deviates from other project schedules on similar projects completed recently and concurrently at the District and State,” said Scott Distel, a supervisory project manager, .

Distel told Douglas Furtado, a BLM district manager in central Nevada, the review of Ioneer’s Rhyolite Ridge project was poised to move forward with limited input. “The groundwater model is approved on 12/26/2023, without any edits or comments that need to be addressed,” he wrote in the email, which was also sent to officials at Ioneer.

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The email illuminates the challenges federal regulators face in complying with legally required deadlines for completing environmental reviews of complicated projects under the National Environmental Policy Act. BLM and its parent, the Interior Department, declined to comment on the email, which the Center for Biological Diversity obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with E&E News.

BLM’s ongoing environmental review of Ioneer’s proposed Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine has drawn national attention because of the sprawling mine’s potential impact on the habitat for an endangered desert flower, Tiehm’s buckwheat. The project is in the Silver Peak Range, about 40 miles southwest of Tonopah.

The CBD cited Distel’s email in an unsuccessful to extend the comment period on a the agency released in April. That draft review concluded the mine — through fencing, locked gates and dust-tampering measures — would not drive the endangered wildflower to extinction.

Currently, BLM appears poised to make a decision on the mine in October. Once a record of decision (ROD) is issued, the project is expected to receive a conditional loan of up to $700 million from the Department of Energy.

According to Distel’s email, the revised schedule under NEPA shows BLM approving a “camera ready” final EIS in August along with a briefing at the agency’s headquarters, followed by a final ROD in October.

Chad Yeftich, Ioneer’s vice president of corporate development and external affairs, said in a statement that the company has worked with federal agencies for almost four years on details tied to the NEPA process and diligently completed each phase. The groundwater model, he said, was approved as complete and compliant before BLM published the draft EIS.

The federal interagency schedule, he said, is the result of that rigorous and thorough process.

“It is consistent with the Administration’s commitment to prioritizing critical mineral production,” said Yeftich. “We share their urgency and have developed a project plan that is responsible and comprehensive.”

Yeftich also emphasized that the project is critical to jump-starting burgeoning EV supply chains in the U.S. and that the company will address additional responses from BLM’s public comment period for the draft EIS, which closed last week.

“Upon the anticipated conclusion of construction in 2027, the lithium and boron from Rhyolite Ridge will play an important role in jumpstarting a secure, domestic electric vehicle battery component supply chain,” Yeftich said. “We are eager to move forward at Rhyolite Ridge and make this domestic supply of critical minerals available to support the energy transition.”

‘Unhappy on both sides’

The timing, duration and intensity of environmental reviews have become an issue both within agencies and on Capitol Hill, as regulators review projects needed to produce minerals like lithium while protecting pristine areas and critical habitat.

Distel’s email illuminates the tensions.

Kevin Minoli, a partner at the law firm Alston & Bird and a former career EPA lawyer who served during the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, said the language Distel used about the “very aggressive” schedule is not incredibly unusual for federal officials. But Minoli said it does appear to reflect a federal employee’s concern with the time frame.

“What appears to be the case is the person expressing that they wish they had more time … to do something like this,” said Minoli, who also advises clients on complying with NEPA.

Minoli said the email appears to show BLM complying with revisions to NEPA that came into effect fairly recently through amendments that set two-year time frames for agencies to complete EISs. BLM confirmed the agency is complying with the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) amendment to NEPA, which includes a two-year timeline for EISs.

“What I expect is happening is you’re seeing an agency midaction having to comply with that deadline and some concern about that being expressed,” said Minoli.

But Minoli cautioned against equating longer NEPA reviews with better work, noting that regulators can do good work quickly. He also noted that while some have been pushing for deeper reviews, especially for contentious projects, others have been long fighting to reach a final decision more quickly.

“People are probably unhappy on both sides, it’s a timing question,” he said.

Pat Parenteau, emeritus professor and senior fellow for climate policy at the Vermont Law and Graduate School, said amendments in the FRA don’t change the legal requirements for NEPA reviews. Any issues raised in the email will need to be addressed, said Parenteau, including those tied to the groundwater model, which was highlighted in Distel’s email.

“If this is, in fact, someone within BLM in a position to know, who’s raising questions about the process … if these are not corrected by the time the ROD is issued, it’ll be grounds for a lawsuit,” said Parenteau.

There is language in the law, Parenteau noted, that allows agencies to take more time to conduct reviews and EISs, but that will ultimately be up to BLM. He also emphasized that BLM isn’t alone in facing the pressure caused by artificial deadlines.

“We’re going to see a lot of these cases, a lot of these issues,” he said. “Any time you put artificial deadlines in the law, you run into this problem because it denies the reality of the way the world works.”

Tiehm’s buckwheat

A Tiehm's buckwheat plant starting to bloom.
A Tiehm’s buckwheat plant starts to bud in its native habitat among searlesite and other mineral rocks on public land in the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada, beside Rhyolite Ridge, the site of a proposed lithium mine, May 7. | Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Ioneer’s federal review has garnered widespread national attention because of the project’s potential impact on the Tiehm’s buckwheat, a 6-inch-tall desert wildflower with yellow blooms that where the company wants to dig up lithium.

Ioneer maintains the 7,166-acre project can protect the flower while generating lithium, a key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries. The company has and investment of more than $2.5 million in conservation efforts.

The project is poised to supply Ford, Toyota, Panasonic and other companies.

Bernard Rowe, managing director of Ioneer, said in a statement last week as the public comment period for the draft EIS closed, that the company has engaged with federal, state and tribal officials, as well as community members, for more than five years, and sought a “new standard for domestic lithium project development.” Added Rowe: “Listening has made our project stronger, and we look forward to addressing feedback to the Bureau of Land Management from the public comment period.”

Conservation groups and tribes disagree and are warning the draft EIS doesn’t give a full picture of just how much water the mine will use. The critics contend the mine could drive the Tiehm’s buckwheat to extinction. The plant was listed as endangered in December 2022.

Currently, eight subpopulations of the plant have been mapped and extensively studied within the mine’s project area. The most recent population census was conducted last May and June and counted 24,916 plants.

In the draft EIS, BLM concluded that while the plant’s desert habitat would be disturbed by construction of the Rhyolite Ridge project, the agency also pointed to steps that Ioneer would take to minimize and mitigate the potential damage. The company also modified its original plan to reduce the environmental impact.

A coalition of groups including the CBD, the Western Shoshone Defense Project, the Sierra Club and Earthworks that the draft EIS is insufficient and fails to fully consider the effect on groundwater and cultural resources

The coalition has presented BLM with numerous studies attached to their comments, which they say show the project will destroy 22 percent of the flower’s critical habitat.

Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin coordinator for the CBD, said during a briefing last week that it would be unprecedented for a single project to destroy almost a quarter of the designated critical habitat of an endangered species and pointed to concerns raised in Distel’s email about the need for public input and feedback.

“It just seems very dubious … we literally had the person who’s responsible for implementing this environmental impact statement saying this is not appropriate,” said Donnelly.

Fermina Stevens, director of the Western Shoshone Defense Project, echoed those concerns.

“It is our understanding that Nevada is the hotbed for critical mineral extraction, and we are concerned with the speed in which projects are being pushed through for many years,” said Stevens.

Reporters Kevin Bogardus and Michael Doyle contributed.