A plan to mine lithium could eradicate a Nevada flower. Is extinction just the cost of green energy?

Botanists express alarm that a rare plant, the Tiehm's buckwheat, won't survive where a lithium mine is planned

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 13, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)

Cultivated Tiehm's buckwheat is seen at Ioneer's Tiehm's buckwheat conservation greenhouse on May 8, 2024 in Gardnerville, Nevada. Tiehm's buckwheat, a rare and endangered wildflower endemic to the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada grows beside Rhyolite Ridge, the site of a proposed lithium mine. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Cultivated Tiehm's buckwheat is seen at Ioneer's Tiehm's buckwheat conservation greenhouse on May 8, 2024 in Gardnerville, Nevada. Tiehm's buckwheat, a rare and endangered wildflower endemic to the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada grows beside Rhyolite Ridge, the site of a proposed lithium mine. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Botanist Jerry Tiehm, the curator of herbarium at the University of Nevada Reno, discovered the plant that now bears his name more than 40 years ago. It was early in his career, and Tiehm was driving through a remote central Nevada canyon while collecting samples to study. He was unaware at the time that it was an unknown species until a different expert informed him that the yellow, white and green plant was something altogether new. Indigenous to a tiny patch of land no larger than 10 acres in area, the new plant was named Tiehm's buckwheat after its discoverer.

"The pit walls will eventually subside and as the result in some number of years after the pit is built, the buckwheat will end up falling into the pit."

More than four decades later, and Tiehm's buckwheat is at the center of a historic lawsuit with millions of dollars at stake. Amidst of all of this furious debate, Tiehm is a mere bystander.

"I am not involved with this controversy," Jerry Tiehm said. "I simply discovered the plant and it was named in my honor."

The controversy involves lithium, a key component of the batteries in electric cars and our always-online gadgets. As climate change continues to worsen because of humans burning fossil fuels, environmentalists of all stripes are turning to electric vehicles as a potential way to reduce the release of carbon dioxide.

Yet the tiny town of Tonopah contains the only legal lithium mine in the United States, meaning that Americans who wish to capitalize on this potential green technology have only one place where they can do so. President Biden accelerated the lithium boom when he signed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, since one provision of the bill requires that all batteries for any new electric vehicles be sourced in either the United States or one of its pre-selected allies to qualify for a tax credit. The Department of Energy has even awarded billions of dollars in grants to upstart lithium companies.

Yet not everyone is happy about the prospect of resource-intensive lithium mining occurring in the Tiehm's buckwheat's neighborhood. Last week the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officially closed public comments on a new environmental impact survey for the proposed Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron mine after thousands of people commented. In addition to ordinary citizens, experts like Claremont Graduate University research assistant professor of botany Naomi Fraga describe potential lithium mines in dire language.

"We know that the proposed mine would destroy 22% of the habitat deemed essential for the species survival," Fraga said. "Further the line will create a large open pit that is 200 acres large and 960 feet deep. This pit is just feet from buckwheat plants." Fraga added that the Australia-based mining company Ioneer says the mine would be 44 feet away from the plants but that she believes based on the spatial files it would only be roughly 15 feet away.

"The pit walls will eventually subside and as a result, in some number of years after the pit is built the buckwheat will end up falling into the pit," said Fraga. "Further the mine will create the conditions for non-native plant species to invade the habitat and it will create dust that will impact the plant."

Patrick Donnelly is the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity. The non-profit conservationist group has worked for over five years to protect the Tiehm's buckwheat from open pit mines like the lithium facility proposed by Ioneer. If constructed, the open pit would require thousands of acres for rock dumps, tailings piles, a tailings dam and a sulfuric acid processing plant.

"Tiehm's buckwheat lives on just 10 acres and would be surrounded by this devastating development," said Donnelly. Given that the Tiehm's buckwheat was listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act, more than 100 scientists felt confident submitting a public letter to the BLM urging them to honor the plant's special status by stopping the mine.

"The mine plan would directly destroy 22% of the plant's protected critical habitat, whole irreparably degrading the other 78% with massive amounts of dust, acid mist and other pollution, pollinator disruption, and the high likelihood of eventual pit wall collapse leading to the total destruction of the plant," Donnelly said.

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"Ioneer is confident in our ability to quadruple the nation’s supply of lithium while protecting Tiehm’s buckwheat."

Chad Yeftich, Ioneer's vice president of corporate development and external affairs, emphatically disagrees with these assessments.

"Ioneer is confident in our ability to quadruple the nation’s supply of lithium while protecting Tiehm’s buckwheat," said Yeftich. He pointed out that in 2022 the company submitted a revised plan to the BLM with the purpose of eliminating direct impacts and minimizing indirect impacts to the rare plant from the mine. The BLM released a draft Environmental Impact Statement in April to reflect Ioneer's proposed changes, including those for protecting the buckwheat.

"Rhyolite Ridge is a better project having gone through the federal permitting process and engaging with the community, and we are pleased the U.S. government recognizes that yearslong work and has advanced our project past the public comment period, which closed on June 3," said Yeftich. He added that the company is voluntarily dedicating time and resources "to the successful propagation and growth of Tiehm's buckwheat at Rhyolite Ridge. We have taken significant voluntary measures to ensure the plant and its habitat are protected, including investing $2.5 million in conservation efforts and committing an additional $1 million annually for its ongoing protection."

Additionally, Ioneer has performed research at their company's Tiehm’s Buckwheat Conservation Center. The researchers claim to have learned that the plant can grow in many types of soil, including some potting mixes available at hardware stores. While conducting this research, they created a seed bank has collected 8,000 seeds, with their greenhouse yielding another 3,000 seeds.

"After another successful harvest of seeds from site – regulated by a BLM permit – we hope to grow even more," said Yeftich. "Working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, we will plant buckwheat plants grown from seedlings at our greenhouse at Rhyolite Ridge."

Perhaps most notably, Ioneer characterized their mining expedition as a blow for planet Earth, not against it. Pointing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report that climate change is the greatest threat to biodiversity in the world, Yeftich said that "the rapid transition from fossil fuels cannot happen without access to critical minerals like lithium needed to decarbonize the transportation sector. When operational, Rhyolite Ridge will quadruple our nation’s lithium supply, creating a unique and important source to support domestic battery supply chains."

By contrast, Fraga is skeptical that a lithium mine which could endanger Tiehm's buckwheat is necessary to fight climate change.

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"Not all places containing [lithium] should be subject to mining, as they may contain features that are important to culture, biodiversity and the environment overall," Fraga said. "Rhyolite Ridge is one such place as it contains all of these things, including a spring that is sacred to tribal communities." Although Fraga is concerned about both climate change and the biodiversity crisis, she draws a line at this plant in particular.

"Tiehm's buckwheat represents a unique form of life on this planet," Fraga continued. "I value all life, including Tiehm's buckwheat. I feel strongly that that we need to transition away from fossil fuels, but it should not come at the cost of species extinction."

Donnelly said that the proposed mine is more than just environmentally dangerous; he also says that it is illegal.

"The proposed Rhyolite Ridge Mine clearly violates the Endangered Species Act," Donnelly explained. "The Act is the most successful conservation law in the world at preventing extinction, and we don't aim to see it undermined by a shady Australian mining company looking to turn a quick buck by driving species extinct. We will be fighting this mine in court, to halt the extinction crisis, save Tiehm's buckwheat, and defend the integrity of the Endangered Species Act."

He added, "Lithium is part of our clean energy transition but it can't come at the cost of extinction. There are over 99 proposed lithium projects in Nevada, many of which do not have endangered species present. There's no legitimate reason to develop this disaster of a mine, and we aim to stop it."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Endangered Species Lithium Lithium Mine Plants Reporting Tiehm's Buckwheat