There’s a new “gold rush” going on, but the “gem” being pursued goes in your smart phones, computers, and electric vehicles, not your jewelry. It’s lithium, the world’s lightest metal and the foundation of the lithium-ion batteries that store electricity to power our devices and cars. Lithium mining is being compared to fracking for the toxic pollution it creates and the environmental destruction it causes, which is why Moms Clean Air Force activists and others are on the front lines of a campaign to stop lithium mining before it ramps up in Nevada.
Lithium was once seen as a sort of miracle material because, when combined with aluminum, cobalt, manganese, and other metals, it can be fabricated into a battery that can both be recharged almost indefinitely and store energy for a longer time than the nickel-cadmium batteries we’re all familiar with. Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries now power almost all of our electronics as well as all the electric cars and trucks we drive.
However, how lithium is mined is problematic. There is already one lithium mine in Nevada. A proposed new mine would be located at a place called Thacker Pass. Thacker Pass is near the ancestral lands of the people who live on the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Reservation. The nearly two-square-mile open-pit mine would produce 5,800 tons of toxic sulfuric acid daily and require constant heavy diesel truck traffic to bring in raw materials to the work site.
This pollution can cause asthma attacks, heart problems, lung problems, skin and eye irritation, and even cancer. Like fracking operations, the mine itself can tear up the landscape and completely disrupt the lives of people living nearby. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from an existing lithium processing operation.
Moms Clean Air Force, Tribal members, ranchers, and environmentalists have launched a petition drive to get the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection to hold a public hearing to challenge the g0-ahead the project was given during the Trump administration, when the Bureau of Land Management quickly approved the project. Air and water permits still need to be issued. Organizers hope their “overwhelming opposition to the mine” will bring the project to a halt. Time is of the essence: If the mine is allowed to proceed, it could run for 40 years—or longer, if more lithium is found.
What’s feared might happen in Nevada is already happening in one form or another at mining sites in Australia, Chile, Bolivia, and Tibet. Meanwhile, the mining of lithium is not the only environmental hazard using it creates. Though lithium-ion batteries last a long time, they don’t last forever. Manufacturers know this. Car companies know this. Computer makers know this. So, while they rush to mine as much lithium as possible, they’re doing relatively little to figure out how to recycle used lithium-ion batteries.
“Over the past decade, the world’s lithium-ion production capacity has increased tenfold to meet the growing demand for EVs,” reports Wired. As vehicles from that first production wave begin to reach the end of their lifespan, the world faces a “tsunami of spent batteries, which will only get worse as more electric cars hit the road. The International Energy Agency predicts an 800% increase in the number of EVs over the next decade, each car packed with thousands of cells.
“The dirty secret of the EV revolution is that it created an e-waste time bomb—and cracking lithium-ion recycling is the only way to defuse it.”
Back in Nevada, activists will keep organizing to raise the red flag about the Thacker Pass mine.
You can support them by following the Thacker Pass fight here. But you can also help by extending the life of your existing rechargeable devices to slow down demand for lithium and limit lithium-ion waste. You can also urge EV manufacturers to set up recycling programs for the batteries their vehicles use. Today, less than 5% of lithium batteries are recycled at the end of their lives. Recycling gold has become a big and profitable business and causes less environmental damage than gold mining. If the lithium “rush” is to make sense, this mineral needs to be recycled too.