Lithium mining company hopes to plow ahead by growing endangered plant in greenhouse

By: - May 5, 2023 7:17 am

The latest strategy by Ioneer to quell concerns by federal wildlife managers includes buffer zones, fencing off known populations around the wildflower, and a conservation center. (Photo for Ioneer by Mike Higdon/Flanz Media)

Rhyolite Ridge in Nevada is one of the only two major known global deposits of lithium-boron. It’s also the location of the only known population of the Tiehm’s buckwheat plant, a rare wildflower listed as endangered by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in December.

Despite the listing, Australia-based mine developer Ioneer Corp., has maintained the company’s planned lithium mine and the rare wildflower unique to Nevada can coexist.

Those plans hit a snag when the wildflower was given over 900 acres of protected habitat overlapping the mine’s proposed site in Esmeralda County. In response, Ioneer developed a new mining plan they say would avoid direct impacts to all the subpopulations of Tiehm’s buckwheat.

The latest strategy by Ioneer to quell concerns by federal wildlife managers includes buffer zones, fencing off known populations of the wildflower, and a conservation center. 

Fencing around the wildflower would be installed anywhere from 13 to 127 feet across from the endangered plant populations under the newest mining plans submitted by the mining company.

If approved as proposed, the project would also remove about 38% of designated critical habitat for the species, and create a permanent quarry and pit lake within the wildflowers federally designated critical habitat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We set about trying to move as much as what we’re proposing outside of that critical habitat. Now, there will be some, the mine itself, you can’t move everything, so some of that will encroach into that critical habitat,” said Ioneer CEO, Bernard Rowe, in an interview Wednesday.

“We will minimize that. The critical habitat, for the most part anyway, is about pollinators. And we’ve got plans to mitigate any disturbance to the pollinator population in the areas that we want to encroach into. And it’s not, it’s not a large percentage of their critical habitat area,” he continued.

Skepticism and criticism

The quarry itself — a deep pit characteristic of mines and where the lithium would be extracted — would be located on the endangered wildflower’s designated critical habitat. The storage facility for the rock and soil layer that needs to be removed and processed to extract the lithium would also be constructed surrounding Thiem’s Buckwheat populations, according to the USFWS. 

Federal wildlife managers signaled some skepticism of the revised plan, however. In a scoping report, USFWS noted that under the plan the endangered wildflower “and its designated critical habitat sit at the mine’s edge,” and questioned how the wildflower would be protected from sliding into the quarry if its slopes can’t be stabilized.

Another major criticism by the USFWS was a lack of protections for pollinators and insect visitors vital to the reproduction of the species. The agency recommended developing management practices for pollinators and insect visitors of Tiehm’s buckwheat that minimize direct and indirect impacts from noise, collision with vehicles, dust, light pollution, and herbicide use.

Rowe, the CEO of Ioneer, acknowledged current plans include potential disturbances to pollinators, but say they are working on addressing USFWS concerns.

Ioneer Buckwheat Greenhouse opening, May 3, 2023. (Photo for Ioneer by Mike Higdon/Flanz Media)

This week in Gardnerville, the mining company held a grand opening for Ioneer’s Tiehm’s Buckwheat Conservation Center, a greenhouse dedicated exclusively to research and conservation of the buckwheat. Rowe said the center will play an important role in researching the pollination process for Theim’s Buckwheat in order to develop a management plan for pollinators. Ioneer hired a full-time botanist to work in the greenhouse, said Rowe.

“We’ve been studying that and with that information, we can put in place appropriate measures to encourage the development of those populations and those involved in pollination,” Rowe said.

Ioneer has long been involved in funding and implementing a propagation and transplant program for plants at new locations, including a joint project with the University of Nevada, Reno. 

“We’re trying to build a population of plants in the greenhouse that we can use as a means of increasing the seed bank that we have, so that we can continue to increase the population of the plants,” Rowe said. “Once we’re at a level that we’re comfortable with, then we can also start planting some of those seedlings back out into the ground in Esmeralda County.”

But researchers at the university who worked on the project with Ioneer, have expressed skepticism about the potential for growing and planting Theim’s Buckwheat outside its natural habitat. 

Theim’s Buckwheat are specifically adapted to their preferred soil types on Rhyolite Ridge. In transplant experiments conducted by researchers at the university, seedlings planted into a site with soils most near their natural habitat had the highest early survival.

In a study on the wildflower authored by Elizabeth Leger, an associate professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Science at UNR, researchers found that on average, seedlings grown in soils from their natural habitat had higher total biomass and higher root allocation than seedlings grown in soils from other habitats. While some seedlings respond positively to different soils at different life stages, none of the soils from outside their natural habitat tested were well-suited to growth across all life stages.

Rowe maintained that prior to work by Leger and other university researchers, “there was a complete void of information specific to Theim’s Buckwheat, we were starting from scratch.”

“We’re using the information, the data that was collected in that first phase of work and we built on that,” Rowe said. “You build on the work that’s been done, and you take that information and you adjust as necessary. And that’s what we’ve done.”

Rowe said Ioneer chose to develop their own center after completing their work with the university because they wanted more space, and wanted to do more planting. 

“To go from where we were a few weeks ago to now, there’s been an incredible increase in the knowledge base around what soils the plant likes, where it will grow, where won’t it grow,” Rowe said.

‘You have to electrify cars’

The core mission of Ioneer is to develop a US-based source of lithium and boron, said Rowe. 

Lithium has been listed by the U.S. Department of Interior as a critical mineral needed to support technologies that would combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions, particularly emissions from transportation. Lithium is a key component for batteries in electric vehicles.

“If you’re going to do anything, at all, about the electrification of transportation and reducing CO2 emissions relating to transportation, then you have to electrify cars and other vehicles,” Rowe said.

The U.S consumes about 100,000 tons of lithium a year. That number is projected to increase to about a million tons a year for the electrification of transportation.

The Rhyolite Ridge project has the potential to produce about 22,000 tons of lithium carbonate annually. Another potential mine in Humboldt County by Canada-based Lithium Americas, the Thacker Pass project, is projected to produce about 67,000 tons a year.

There is currently only one lithium producing mine in the U.S., Albemarle’s Silverpeak mine in Esmeralda County. That mine produces about 5,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year, though Albemarle recently announced it hopes to double that production by 2025.

If finalized, the Rhyolite Ridge project could potentially support the production of lithium for about 350,000 electric vehicles each year, said Rowe. It’s also projected to create up to 600 construction jobs and approximately 250-300 operations jobs.

“It has the potential, once in production, to actually become the most critical source of lithium in the United States for the electrification of transportation,” Rowe said. “There is a tremendous opportunity for Nevada, not only to mine the material, but also to make the high purity end products.”

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies.