BLM admits error, pulls approval of Ash Meadows lithium project

By: - July 21, 2023 4:45 am

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity)

Federal land managers have pulled their approval for a controversial lithium exploration project less than a mile from a treasured wetland habitat home to a trove of species found nowhere else in the world.

Late Wednesday, the Bureau of Land Management admitted the agency erred when they approved an exploratory mineral drilling operation near the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge—a critical wetland habitat in the Amargosa Desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas—without consulting other relevant agencies.

In a letter, the BLM determined the proposed operation by Canada-based Rover Metals to drill up to 30 exploratory boreholes just north of the refuge would likely cause damage to the groundwater that feeds the meadows, and potentially harm threatened and endangered species who rely on the refuge.

Some of the proposed drill sites would have been within 2,000 feet of Fairbanks Spring, a critical habitat for the endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish.

Federal land managers said that, without more information, they aren’t certain Rover Metals’ could prevent “unnecessary or undue degradation” to the refuge that supports a dozen threatened and endangered species, including the pupfish.

“Based on the information before it, BLM concludes that (Rover Metals) operations will cause surface disturbance greater than casual use” on federally protected lands and water, the letter says. 

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the wildlife refuge, reached out to the BLM earlier this month expressing “concern about the proposed project and potential impacts to water quality and spring discharge” on the wildlife refuge from nearby drilling.

Federal wildlife managers emphasized their concern for springs nearest to the exploratory drilling project, including Fairbanks, Rogers and Longstreet springs.

The BLM chose to rescind their approval of the exploratory drilling project after receiving additional information “not known to BLM during its review” that highlighted the possibility of adverse impacts on groundwater and nearby surface water.

Amargosa River, the lifeline of the refuge, runs below ground for much of its 180-mile course, but in the stretches that reach the surface, the river supports endemic species that depend entirely on springs fed by the fragile groundwater aquifers.

At least 25 species of plants and animals, including the Devil’s Hole pupfish, are only found in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the highest concentrations of endemic species found in the United States, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

Approval of the exploration project resulted in legal action against the BLM by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Amargosa Conservancy, who filed a preliminary injunction demanding the government halt the project.

“We’re immensely relieved that our lawsuit and overwhelming public opposition compelled federal officials to slam the breaks on this project,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Earlier this month, Rover Metals CEO Judson Culter announced the company planned to start work on the exploratory drilling project in mid-July after securing financing for the company’s Let’s Go Lithium project in Nevada.

The company says it has verified high-grade lithium surface samples at its 6,000-acre project site and plans to drill a minimum of 10 exploratory boreholes.

“We need lithium for our renewable energy transition, but this episode sends a message loud and clear that some places are just too special to drill,” Donnelly said in a statement.

Residents in nearby towns along the Amargosa River have pushed back on the project over concerns about the “potentially destructive, water-intensive and invasive activity so close to a declared refuge.”

In a letter from the Beatty Town Advisory Board sent to the BLM’s Pahrump Field Office in late June, town officials asked for a thorough environmental review of the exploratory project before any drilling is allowed.

“This is a remarkable victory for our community here in the Amargosa Basin,” said Mason Voehl, executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy. “The message from our members and neighbors was loud and clear. Mining doesn’t belong near our beloved Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.”

Rover Metals could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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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.