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Native protest

Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and supporters gather for a circle dance for healing during a gather in opposition to the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, which has historical significance for the tribe, on June 5, 2021. (Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Conservationists to Biden: 'Clean Energy Transition Cannot Be Built on Dirty Mining'

"Expanding mining without addressing the shortcomings of our archaic mining laws would be disastrous. More than a century of reckless mining has poisoned the air, water, and land of too many communities."

Jessica Corbett

Environmentalists and Indigenous communities are sounding the alarm on President Joe Biden's plan to use his executive authority to boost U.S. production of minerals for clean energy storage—a move officially announced Thursday after a week of reporting on its development.

"The government should use its purchasing power to maximize reuse of recycled content and build a circular materials economy."

"We absolutely must move quickly away from fossil fuels, and doing so means getting serious about responsible sourcing of clean energy minerals," declared Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel in a statement. "The clean energy transition cannot be built on dirty mining."

While increasing domestic oil production in the short term, Biden is committed to "achieving real energy independence—which centers on reducing our dependence on oil altogether," the White House said. As part of that commitment, he is invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA).

According to the White House fact sheet:

The president will issue a directive, authorizing the use of the Defense Production Act to secure American production of critical materials to bolster our clean energy economy by reducing our reliance on China and other countries for the minerals and materials that will power our clean energy future. Specifically, the DPA will be authorized to support the production and processing of minerals and materials used for large capacity batteries—such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese—and the Department of Defense will implement this authority using strong environmental, labor, community, and tribal consultation standards.

"The sectors supported by these large capacity batteries—transportation and the power sector—account for more than half of our nation's carbon emissions," the document noted, adding that "the president is also reviewing potential further uses of DPA—in addition to minerals and materials—to secure safer, cleaner, and more resilient energy for America."

While new polling from Data for Progress shows that 66% of all U.S. voters and 81% of Democrats support using the DPA to boost clean power production, critics are worried about the impacts of expanding mining for materials used in batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy.

"Earthworks strongly opposes the employment of the Defense Production Act to bolster mining because it adds to the generational trauma experienced by mining-affected communities, particularly Indigenous communities," Pagel said. "Fortunately, there are better ways to meet our growing mineral demand than hardrock mining. The government should use its purchasing power to maximize reuse of recycled content and build a circular materials economy."

"Expanding mining without addressing the shortcomings of our archaic mining laws would be disastrous," she warned. "More than a century of reckless mining has poisoned the air, water, and land of too many communities. The administration must complete its own mining reform process to ensure protections for our shared public lands and the communities that call those lands home."

In recent days, people from Indigenous communities have shared similar statements. Last weekend, following initial reports about Biden's draft order, frontline community members and allied groups met to discuss the ongoing lithium mining rush in Arizona, California, and Nevada.

"We deeply oppose President Biden's executive order for the Defense Production Act for precious minerals," said Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribal member Day Hinkey, who is part of the group Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or the People of Red Mountain. "I believe this is gonna be the second coming of environmental destruction. The first we're in now is the climate crisis from the fossil fuel industry, and I believe this next one will be lithium mining."

"Water is life. That's not just a slogan, it's what we all need to survive."

Hinkey, who raised concerns about the destruction of cultural lands and elimination of Indigenous history, added that "water is life. That's not just a slogan, it's what we all need to survive. In this climate right now, we are suffering in drought, and everyone needs water. Lithium is going to contaminate a ton of water. We need this water to survive for drinking water and our foods."

Duck Valley Paiute Shoshone tribal member Gary McKinney, a spokesperson of Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu, called for action by the National Congress of American Indians, saying that "we need you now to step up with us to protect our cultural sites from extraction, colonialism, and capitalism."

"Those of you listening, we need to protect our cultural sites because they mean something to us," he said. "Our massacre sites, our burial sites, our cultural sites, our medicines, our roots, our water, our air. We need to protect that. We need to start setting up things so that we're not being sacrificed for capitalism."

Ahead of Biden's announcement Thursday, some Democrats in Congress highlighted fears for frontline communities and the inadequacy of current federal law.

"We have seen abuses, and we have seen many sites that have been abandoned," Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told E&E News. "The United States government takes responsibility and then it takes a lifetime to be able to go to reclaim, but what's never talked about are the people in the community that live in that community, how harmed they are."

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) warned that "it would be a mistake to expand mining without acknowledging the underlying fact that we're still mining under a 150-year-old law."

"If the administration wants to do more mining on public lands," he told E&E News, "they need to be cognizant of the fact that the 1872 Mining Act is not a functional regulatory structure and doesn't provide for the kind of cleanup that local communities really want to see as part of the efforts."

In a Tuesday letter to Biden about his DPA plans, Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) wrote that "we urge you to reject this long-standing, ill-conceived request from the mining industry and instead focus your administration's work on improving regulations that protect public lands, clean water, and tribal communities from the harmful impacts of mining."

The pair also pointed out that "hardrock mining is the number one source of toxic pollution in the U.S., yet the industry operates under the long-outdated Mining Law of 1872," and that "regulations issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) are also woefully inadequate given the scale of the damage caused by this industry."

Earthjustice senior legislative representative Blaine Miller-McFeeley said in a statement Thursday that "the climate crisis and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have demonstrated the urgency to transition to a clean energy future that will lower emissions and reduce our reliance on foreign supplies of dirty fossil fuels while ending toxic impacts on frontline communities."

"We must also ensure that any mining that does occur is as safe, sustainable, and pro-worker as possible."

"The Biden administration has the opportunity to ensure a sustainable supply chain for the critical minerals we need to cut climate emissions, electrify our transportation sector, and transition to clean energy," he said. "It is vital that through the implementation of this order we do not proceed under a business-as-usual scenario for a hardrock mining industry that has a long history of environmental harm and impacts to tribal and other vulnerable communities."

"Sustainable solutions, like updating our mining laws and regulations and incentivizing the development of a circular economy based on reusing and recycling critical minerals, can help us meet demand domestically," he noted. "We must also ensure that any mining that does occur is as safe, sustainable, and pro-worker as possible."

"The mining industry must pay for the resources it takes out of public lands, and clean up the toxic mess it leaves," he continued. "With most untapped U.S. critical minerals located within 35 miles of Indigenous communities, this transition must occur with meaningful tribal consultation, Indigenous resource protections, and seek to achieve the free, prior, and informed consent of impacted communities."

While applauding the recently announced federal review of mining regulations and calling on Congress to "finally reform" the law from 1872, Miller-McFeeley emphasized that "the administration must undertake every effort to ensure that the transition to clean energy is as sustainable as possible and doesn't shift the burden of energy production from one community to another."


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