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By Miriam Raftery

Photo, left: September 30 protest at Barona reservation in Lakeside

October 19, 2021 (Lakeside) –  Members of the Barona band of Mission Indians and other tribal nations have joined a fight aiming to stop the proposed Sandy Valley lithium mine in Arizona and proposed lithium mining at the Salton Sea in California that could adversely impact Native Americans.

Local activist Bobby Wallace led a local contingency of tribal members who traveled in late September to Arizona, where the Hualapai people are battling to stop the federal Bureau of Land Management from issuing permits for lithium mining that could threaten tribal water supplies.

Participants included tribal leaders and/or tribal council members from the Hualapai Nation and the Peach Springs tribe, as well as tribal youths and members of the Yavapai Apache People, Mohawk/Oneida tribe, Pueblo, Navajo, Zuni, and San Diego County tribal members from the Kumeyaay and Luiseno, as well as representatives of other activist groups.

Lithium is prized for use in cell phones, computers, batteries and other technology devices -- but at a high environmental price for those impacted by hard-rock and open-pit mining used to extract it.  Now tribal members are urging the federal government to prioritize metal and rare earth mineral recycling over issuance of new mining permits. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that metal mining accounts for 41 percent of toxic substances released and hard rock mines may have already contaminated 40% of watersheds in the West, the Arizona Republic reported on October 2.

“This is a travesty that endangers the livelihood of everyone and everything in that town,” Wallace says of the proposed lithium mining operations near Hualapai lands. “The hot springs and water we are trying to save has been used by the Hualapai people and other first nations since the beginning. It is an oasis in the desert and very beautiful,” he says, adding that test holes punctured part of the water source at the historic site.

Wallace adds, “This lithium `drive-new gold rush’ is starting in Thacker Pass/Paiute historical sites, moving south to Wikiup, then moving all the way to the Salton Sea, which is known for sacred sites and oral history since the beginning for the Kumeyaay, Quechan and Luiseno people.”

According to Wallace, about 70 people joined in walking and running across Arizona with the Red Road Warrior Society and American Indian Movement Yuman Grassroots to draw attention to the cause. 

Photo; Bobby Wallace, right, with protesters in Arizona.

Wallace told ECM that on Sept. 25,  “We served the drilling contractors a paper stating that the Hualapai Tribe oppose what the are doing and should stop.” (View the Hualapai resolution, page 1 and page 2) Two days later, the group served a paper to the Bureau of Land Management in Kingman, AZ, informing the BLM of the tribal opposition.

The tribal coalition is asking the U.S. Department of the Interior to create new rules to prioritize urban mining – recycling from discarded cell phones, computers, monitors and batteries – over issuing new mining permits. The Clinton administration had issued restrictions that the Bush administration largely repealed.  The group also wants updates to the General Mining Act which dates to 1872, with tougher environmental evaluations.  Mining companies don’t even pay royalties on the 83% of mines which operate on federal land – they’re not required to, under the law that predates most Western development. In addition, tribes are asking the Biden administration for meaningful tribal consultation to protect indigenous resources.

The U.S. lags behind other countries in lithium-ion battery recycling capacity, according to Jeffrey Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, a consortium of industry, university and government labs working to create new means of economically recycling lithium-ion batteries, including those in electric vehicles soon to reach the end of their lifespan of 12 years.

The California Energy Commission wants to cash in on the spike in demand for lithium, known as “white gold” for its uses in powering electric vehicles in a fossil-fuel free future potentially.  So, the Commission has become an angel investor offering $16million in grants to companies working to find technically and commercially feasible means of extracting lithium from the brine resulting from geothermal plants at the Salton Sea in Imperial County.  Cal Energy Resources, a grant recipient, plans to build a small-scale demonstration plant to start up next year.  The Desert Sun reports that it potentially could produce nearly a third of the world’s lithium.

But at what cost to the people who live in the region, which already has the state’s highest rate of asthma and is ranked among the state’s most polluted places?

The 350-square mile Salton Sea, cut off from its freshwater supply, has been evaporating, leaving “generations of toxic sludge” in its wake that have killed fish and sent dust clouds whipped by the winds to aggravate respiratory health problems. One geothermal developer has reportedly proposed contributing funds to remediation efforts to restore wetlands and air quality. But the environmental impacts of the proposed new lithium extraction process from geothermal brine is currently unknown.  The pilot project was exempted from environmental review, though a full-scale project would presumably go through more rigorous testing. But past citations of some geothermal facilities in the area for failing to properly dispose of hazardous materials and operating without emissions permits raise concerns.

For Wallace, the concerns over lithium extraction focus mainly on the impacts on water, but he also raises serious questions over how to dispose of the growing number of lithium batteries being produced, increasing the need for recycling valuable raw materials.

“Is this lithium battery the fourth industrial revolution that will put the nail in the coffin for the planet, killing all water?” the Barona tribal member asks. “By 2035, where are we going to put all this non reusable energy source material – hundreds upon hundreds of millions of batteries or more on our planet?”

The group is planning another action on November 8.  “We will be delivering another letter to the Bureau of Land Management, having another protest, and also be delivering another letter to the drilling company,” Wallace told ECM. “This letter will include the right to protect and preserve Sacred Sites, Water, and Mother Earth for the Ancestral Land of the Hualapai People.”



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