Westside residents need local opportunity, not distant mining jobs

December 7, 2021 5:30 am

Recruiting from Black neighborhoods for mining jobs in rural Nevada, while seemingly well-intended, reflects ulterior motivations. (Photo posted by City of Las Vegas on the city’s Twitter account, Feb. 20, 2021).

“A job is a job,” they say, especially if you don’t have one. But when is a job more than that, or worse?

In Las Vegas’s Historic Westside, a residential downtown neighborhood that for decades was the only place in the city where Black people were allowed to live, residents are being recruited for high-paying careers. There are just two catches: the jobs are hundreds of miles from home, and may come at the expense of other vulnerable communities as well as the environment and desert ecology. The Nevada Mining Association (NVMA) has had several job tours and is actively hiring from Black and diverse communities in the Vegas valley to enter the extraction industry at mines across the state. 

Westside residents deal with some of the highest rates of joblessness, currently nearly double the rate of both Clark County and Nevada’s overall rate and comparable to some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Acute, historic unemployment in the U.S. is a result of chronic neglect, underinvestment, and other systemic forces; it is normal that people are made unemployed through no fault of their own. BIPOC communities are often unemployed at (much) higher rates, sometimes staggeringly so.  

Why this hiring push now? Well, the association says mining needs to diversify to increase its workforce. But, there’s more to it. Mining in Nevada has forever enjoyed the benefit of not paying meaningful taxes because of protections embedded in our state constitution. That is, until recently, when the economy seized up from the devastating pandemic and closures, and legislators finally did something. For years, (predominantly urban) Nevadans have shown an increasing outpouring of support for mining reform, and specifically, much greater taxation of mining profits. Barrick Gold Corp. and Newmont Corp., the corporations that comprise the Nevada Gold Mines joint venture that produces the lion’s share of gold in Nevada, both saw profits increase in the early pandemic. 

The mining association is also helmed for the first time by a president who happens to be Black (a “first” for any of Nevada’s major trade associations). NVMA collaborates with Nevada Partners, a robust social service agency in the heart of the Westside, to promote the jobs. They’ve produced interviews from community figures extolling the benefits of the jobs–which is interesting as none of the interviewees will be the ones being hired. 

Recruiting from Black neighborhoods for mining jobs in rural Nevada, while seemingly well-intended, reflects ulterior motivations. It generates favor from working-class urbanites on behalf of the mining industry and coupled with Nevada’s contentious legislative framework it could provide a political bulwark to mining at the expense of further needed accountability and fair taxation. It also obfuscates the larger forces that have stymied restoration of the Westside and defuses criticism of local and state authorities. 

All people deserve dignified jobs that provide a decent quality of life. People in the Westside who have been without that for a very long time don’t have to go far to find a culprit contributing to this negligence: City Hall is only 2.5 miles away. For generations, a seat on the Las Vegas City Council and on the Clark County Commission has essentially been reserved for someone representing the Westside. Though it seems only in the last decade or so have they taken a spirited interest in revitalizing the area, setting the stage for and facilitating a slow creep of gentrification. The new recruits would spend their worktime hundreds of miles from their families. But they shouldn’t have to, especially not people who are already losing their communities. 

Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford is a member of the Board of Directors of Nevada Partners. Horsford represents a swath of rural Nevada and mining is very important to his district. In 2019 he voted with Republicans against federal mining royalties that would’ve provided over $140 million in new revenue to his state, monies that could regenerate small towns beholden to mining—until perhaps they no longer would be. Along with Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who as a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee advocated against the very same thing to be included in the Democrats’ proposed “Build Back Better Act,” one can nakedly see the extent of political favor enjoyed by the industry. The NVMA president also lobbied against royalties. 

In a state that cannot even provide a hospital in every county, where consumers’ contribution to the public budget from cannabis rivals that of multinational mining conglomerates with billions in profits, this is simply ridiculous, and a grotesque flex of the power of “special interests.” In other words, legislators consistently prioritize profits over people, again and again, ad nauseum. In October, Sen. Cortez-Masto proudly tweeted “I will always protect Nevada jobs,” referencing the effort against royalties which–accompanied by centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of Virginia’s spirited opposition–stripped yet another popular and generative provision from President Biden and the Democrats’ signature legislative package. Earlier in the year, when pressed by indigenous activists. Cortez-Masto said she was not aware of the potential harm of a proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass.

The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) recently hosted a roundtable discussion on Black and Indigenous solidarity and the activity of the NVMA. It included organizers from Mass Liberation, an organization that leads on issues of mass incarceration and criminalization, as well as two advocates with The People of Red Mountain. The latter are spokespeople who came south from their home near the border with Oregon, where they can be found at camp “Protect Peehee Mu’huh” in resistance to what is proposed to be the largest lithium mine on the North American continent. 

Peehee Mu’huh is a native name for Thacker Pass, where a Canadian conglomerate intends to develop a mine that will last for generations. It would desecrate and destroy sacred sites of The People of Red Mountain–a coalition of Paiute and Shoshone individuals from the nearby Fort McDermitt Tribe. In the 19th century, their ancestors were massacred in Thacker Pass by military forces and their remains eventually submerged into the ground. A descendant of a survivor of the massacre was present at the PLAN roundtable and spends most of his time nowadays supporting the protest camp and efforts to raise awareness against the mine.

A federal judge out of Reno has said she will rule on whether or not Lithium Americas, through its subsidiary Lithium Nevada, can begin construction of the site by January. Last month, PLAN led a visit up to Thacker Pass for the Las Vegas-based organizers. They stayed at the protest camp, visited a sacred site, participated in ceremony, and spent time learning from directly-impacted people. Later, in November, PLAN gave out information about the impacts of mining and Thacker Pass at an annual community BBQ hosted by Black elected officials and sponsored by the NVMA. 

Nevada has been ranked as the top jurisdiction in the world in which to do business for the mining and extraction industry, and in August, Las Vegas hosted the once-every-four-years international mining expo. Yet, most people in the state don’t live near a mine and have little idea of how the industry violently disfigures the land. They do not feel the ecological and health impacts to the local community. 

Mining activity has many consequences, poisoning land, air, and water and killing off nearby plant and animal species, as well as humans. Indigenous people bear the brunt of deleterious health conditions caused by mining—a hallmark of environmental racism. 

An abandoned mine contaminated the water supply of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, just a few dozen miles from the state capital. Close to Thacker Pass, the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe members worked for decades in the largest mercury mines in the country near their reservation, where leftover waste contained monumental concentrations of the toxic metal and workers developed and died from cancer. There’s also the tragic issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and human trafficking that is exacerbated by “man camps” of miners and the general apathy towards gender violence facing women and girls of color. 

Considering the role and reach of mining in our state, and its potentially devastating impacts, it is important to have a deeper, nuanced analysis for the benefit of our public policy, to uphold justice for indigenous communities, and to truly face the climate and environmental crises already harming Nevadans. When Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson was negotiating on mining reform with the mining association’s president, Tyre  Gray, and other lobbyists, Native Nevadans’ opinions and voices were welcomed—until they were steamrolled in favor of industry. 

One struggling community should not be uplifted at the expense of others, especially when the thing in the middle–corporations and their association–has done more than enough to keep all Nevadans from sharing in the prosperity they greedily hoard for themselves. “Diversifying” mining won’t change that. It’ll just make us all sicker.

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Nathaniel Phillipps
Nathaniel Phillipps

Nathaniel Phillipps is a homegrown Las Vegas community organizer from the Twin Lakes neighborhood and a graduate of UNLV. He is a member of the Las Vegas chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.