RENO, Nev. (AP) — In an ongoing legal battle with the Biden administration over a Nevada lithium mine, environmentalists are poised to return to court with a new approach accusing U.S. wildlife officials of dragging their feet on a year-old petition seeking endangered species status for a tiny snail that lives nearby.
The Western Watersheds Project said in its formal notice of intent to sue that the government’s failure to list the Kings River pyrg as a threatened or endangered species could push it to the brink of extinction.
It says the only place the snail is known to exist is in 13 shallow springs near where Lithium Americas is building its Thacker Pass Mine near the Oregon line.
President Joe Biden has made ramped-up domestic production of lithium a key part of his blueprint for a greener future. Worldwide demand for the critical element in the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries is projected to increase six-fold by 2030 compared with 2020.
Past lawsuits filed by conservationists and tribes have taken aim — largely unsuccessfully — at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which they accused of cutting regulatory corners to expedite approval of the mine itself in 2021.
The new approach targets the department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with ensuring protection of fish and wildlife habitat surrounding the mine site 200 miles (321 kilometers) northeast of Reno.
Western Watersheds Project says groundwater pumping associated with the mine’s 370-foot-deep (113-meter) open pit will reduce or eliminate flows to the springs that support the snails.
In the formal 90-day notice of intent to sue sent to Interior Secretary Deborah Haaland last month, they say her agency’s failure to make a 12-month finding on the listing petition filed in September 2022 is a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t supposed to sit on its hands while species are in imminent danger of extinction, but the fact that it hasn’t met the deadlines on the pyrg raises questions about why they might be delaying,” Adam Bronstein, the project’s Nevada director, said in a statement.
“It would be absolutely unacceptable if the Biden Administration is waiting until it’s too late to save the species so as not to interrupt the construction of a lithium mine,” he said.
Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in an email Thursday the department had no comment on the group’s intent to sue.
Western Watersheds Project said time is of the essence because the snails were imperiled even before any new mining was contemplated due to livestock grazing, round-building and, increasingly, the anticipated impacts of climate change.
“The species has no regulatory protection whatsoever … because it is not an endangered species, or even a Bureau of Land Management-listed Sensitive species, and has no state law protections,” the notice said.
Conservationists and tribal lawyers claimed a partial victory last year when U.S. District Judge Miranda Du concluded the bureau failed to fully comply with new interpretations of the 1872 Mining Law. But she stopped short of blocking the project, allowing construction to begin as the bureau shored up plans for disposal of waste rock.
The opponents appealed, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Du’s ruling in July.
The tiny snail’s shell is less than 2 millimeters (0.08 inches) tall. By comparison, a U.S. nickel coin is 1.95 millimeters thick. They’ve managed to survive in isolated springs, which are remnants of extensive waterways that have covered what is now dry land only to recede many times over the last 2 million years, the listing petition said.
The project says three of the springs are within a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) buffer zone, the bureau established in its review of potential impacts of a 10-foot (3-meter) drawdown of the groundwater table, and the rest are less than 4 miles (4.8 kilometers) away.
“As drought frequency increases with climate change, the Kings River pyrg will be at high risk of extinction,” the letter to Haaland said. It notes that the Nevada Department of Wildlife considers the pyrg “extremely vulnerable to climate change.”
Lithium Americas had no comment on the notice of intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service, spokesman Tim Crowley said. The company said when the listing petition was filed last year that it’s done extensive work to design a project that avoids impacts to the springs.
The Bureau of Land Management said earlier its environmental review of the project that it didn’t detect any of the snails “within the direct footprint of the project or any area likely to be adversely affected by the project.”