‘Apprehensive but optimistic’: Nevada’s least populated county braces for industrial development
Installation at the International Car Forest of the Last Church in Goldfield, Nev. (Photo by April Corbin Girnus)
In the arid landscapes that make up Esmeralda County, there is a huge cache of untapped wealth that mining companies are racing to acquire: lithium.
Ralph Keyes, the Chair of the Esmeralda County Board of Commissioners, likens the boom in mining applications to the California Gold Rush in its intensity, scale, and potential for lasting change.
“There’s mining companies drilling all over the place looking for lithium right now,” Keyes said. “We don’t know what else is gonna pop up.”
Developers’ interest in pulling lithium out of Clayton Valley has only grown since North Carolina headquartered Albemarle Corporation’s Silver Peak Mine — the only operational lithium mine in the U.S — first started production in the 70’s.
“I think whoever gets to it first is going to be the winner,” he said.
One major contender is the Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project by Australian-based mining developer, Ioneer Corp., which secured a $700 million loan commitment for the project from the U.S. Department of Energy in January.
The mine promises to drastically alter the county’s economy, but not quickly enough, and not with the blessing of all who live there.
Esmeralda County is the least populated county in Nevada, a fact reflected by the county’s infrastructure and services. The county is built to support the roughly 800 residents who live there, but if the projected 600 construction jobs it will take to build the mine is accurate, the county population could nearly double within a couple of years.
“How does a small county with limited resources adapt?” asked Keyes.
The mine, the largest development project in the county in the last 20 years, will demand significant extra costs to expand law enforcement, emergency services, and solid waste disposal, according to the county. The county would be also burdened by higher maintenance expenses for roads, utilities, and sanitation services.
Relief for taxpayers in Esmeralda County would only come after Ioneer starts paying a small property tax after four years, and the county starts receiving its share of the state net proceeds of minerals tax in later years.
The county’s entire budget is roughly $5 million a year, a large portion of which pays for only 50 public employees. Recruiting qualified employees is already difficult due to the county’s limited budget.
Representatives for Ioneer said the company regularly engages with county officials and are working on an agreement to mitigate financial hardships on the county. In January, Ioneer CEO Bernard Rowe, sent a letter to the Esmeralda County Commission assuring elected officials that Ioneer would address the county’s concerns in parallel to the ongoing federal permitting process.
“I assure you that we will continue to work respectfully and transparently with the people of Fish Lake Valley and Esmeralda County to address the challenges and opportunities that our project will bring to the community,” Rowe wrote.
Keyes, the commissioner for district 3 in Esmeralda County, called actions by the mining company “good gestures” but emphasized he hasn’t seen any formal or legal commitments.
“There’s no commitment there, because they don’t have any money to back it up at this time,” Keyes said. “There’s nothing in writing about how they would help.”
“I’m not sure how we’re going to mitigate those effects. That’s a concern,” he continued.
Any significant increase in population may further reduce the county’s limited water resources, according to county comments to the Bureau of Land Management in March.
Groundwater levels near the proposed mine have a long-term declining trend, according to the county. Local residents fear their wells may dry due to the large amounts of water needed for the mine’s construction, said Keyes. Some people’s wells have already gone dry due to agricultural pumping, he added.
“If it dries up somebody’s domestic well for their house, it’s a problem. Their hydrogeology studies show that that won’t happen, but they won’t commit to mitigating any negative effect if that does happen,” Keyes said.
The majority his constituents are united behind the idea of limited growth in order to maintain their existing lifestyles, said Keyes.
“Our master plan doesn’t really work real good with their plans,” said Keyes. “We like the rural nature of our county.”
In Esmeralda County’s Fish Lake Valley, Keyes said about half of residents are against the project. The mine would be about 13 miles away from the small town of Dyer where retirees and veterans value the quiet and unchanging nature of the desert.
Heavy truck traffic, contractors, RV man camps, and hundreds of mine workers will disrupt that way of life, said Keyes.
“Things don’t stay the same all the time,” he continued.
Keyes emphasized that regionally, the potential growth brought by the mine would benefit surrounding counties, but at the burden of residents in Esmeralda County, including himself.
Still, Keyes said he supports the mine. He describes his support as “apprehensive, but optimistic.” The mine is one of dozens of proposed development projects in the county, with more to come.
“I think most people understand it’s going to be inevitable. It’s going to happen if they get their permit,” Keyes said.
Just over 80% of Nevada land is owned by the federal government – the highest in the U.S. Esmeralda County has the highest percentage of federal land ownership of all Nevada counties. Over 97% of Esmeralda County is controlled and managed by the federal government, and 50% of that public land has patented mining claims.
“What they allow on those lands affects us greatly. But we don’t have much control of that, like this mining permitting process, we don’t have a lot of say about it. We’re just trying to mitigate any negative effects, hopefully benefit from the positives. But it’s mostly of out of our control,” Keyes said.
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