Federal authorities begin mine review at endangered flower site

RENO, Nev. (AP) – Days after U.S. wildlife officials said a Nevada wildflower is endangered at the site of a proposed lithium mine, federal land managers are launching a review of the latest project plans the developer says will allow the mine and the flower to coexist.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management released a notice of intent Tuesday to proceed with the environmental review despite last week’s decision by the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service. that Tiehm’s buckwheat is on the verge of extinction.

Ioneer Ltd., the Australian miner, said it was a “significant milestone” that sets in motion the final stage of permitting needed to start mining by 2026 a key element in batteries for electric vehicles that is central to the agenda. of President Joe Biden on “clean energy”.

The mine is projected to produce enough lithium to make about 400,000 EVs annually for decades, “quadrupling the current domestic supply that is critical to meeting the climate goals set by the Biden administration,” said Ioneer CEO Bernard Rowe.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in the flower’s listing that potential mining poses the greatest threat to the survival of the 6-inch-tall, yellow-flowered plant in the only place it is known to exist. It is also threatened by road construction, livestock grazing, rodents that eat it, invasive plants and climate change, the agency said.

Environmentalists who oppose the mine do not believe Ioneer’s environmental mitigation plans will pass law. They are prepared to resume legal action if necessary to protect the plants on the high desert ridge where the mine is planned halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, near the California border.

“We’re gearing up for a fight,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which applied to list the flower in 2019 and sued last year to expedite protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“The recent endangered species listing gives us the most powerful tool in the conservation toolbox to prevent the extinction of this rare, beautiful wildflower,” Donnelly said.

Ioneer’s is the first lithium project to be issued a notice of intent to conduct a formal environmental review under the Biden administration.

Ioneer CEO James Calaway said it’s “an important step toward securing a robust domestic supply of critical minerals and strategic materials necessary to develop a domestic battery supply chain essential to electrifying U.S. transportation.” .

At the same time, the internal conflict unfolding within the Department of the Interior illustrates some of the challenges facing Biden as he pushes for an aggressive shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

“It’s a real failure of leadership at Interior to directly undermine each other like this,” Donnelly said.

The same dynamic is at play in a federal lawsuit over a USFWS Nevada frog that was declared endangered earlier this month and a BLM-approved geothermal plant in adjacent wetlands about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Reno.

In both cases, Donnelly said, the agencies appear to be “at cross purposes, with the agency declaring species endangered precisely because of the actions the other federal agency is authorizing.”

“If the Biden administration wants the transition to renewable energy to succeed, it needs to come up with a plan that doesn’t lead to species extinction.” he said.

The BLM’s notice begins a 30-day “scoping process” with public comment through Jan. 19 to help determine what kinds of alternatives will be developed in a subsequent environmental impact statement.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated last week only about 16,000 Tiehm’s buckwheat plants remain in six subpopulations totaling just 10 acres (4 hectares) spanning about 3 square miles (7.8 square kilometers) — all at the site of mine on Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range west of Tonopah.

Ioneer’s mitigation plan relies heavily on a “buckwheat exclusion zone” where all factories would be surrounded by fences away from any mining operations at distances ranging from 13 to 127 feet (4-38 meters), the BLM said.

The company said this week “there are no direct project-related impacts to any of the Tiehm’s buckwheat subpopulations.”

The Center for Biological Diversity maintains a protective buffer up to 1 mile (1.6 km) necessary to protect plants from erosion, fugitive dust, reduce nearby pollinators, and other potential adverse effects.

“Ioneer’s Buckwheat Island scenario would spell disaster for this delicate little flower,” Donnelly said.

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