On a recent hot afternoon in Wikieup, a rural community of around 100 people located on U.S. Highway 93 in western Arizona, locals, some wearing cowboy hats, sat in metal folding chairs at the local elementary school to learn about a potential new lithium mine project coming to the region. A representative of Hawkstone Mining, the Australian company behind the project, stood in front of a projected PowerPoint presentation, trying to convince them that the planned mine would be safe.
But the attendees weren't buying it. To them, the mine poses an existential threat to their water supply during an ongoing severe drought. And the notion that the community might sacrifice their water so that a foreign company can extract lithium, which is used in batteries to power consumer electronics and electric cars, seemed ludicrous.
"Why are you here trying to take our water?" said one long-time resident, who identified himself to Phoenix New Times as Douglas. "That’s wrong for you to take our water away from us."
"We’re not going to have electric cars here," one woman scoffed, prompting laughter from the room.
Members of the Hualapai Tribe argued that the project would desecrate their cultural sites. The tribe's land in Wikieup includes a natural hot spring they consider sacred. Hawkstone Mining wants to drill holes in the land adjacent to their property.
"This mining exploration surrounds Hualapai land on three sides," Peter Bungart, a tribal historic preservation officer with the Hualapai Tribe Department of Cultural Resources, said at the meeting. "It would destroy the land there."
The mine isn't a done deal yet. After conducting some initial exploratory drilling on federal land in Wikieup back in 2019, Hawkstone Mining is now seeking permission from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to go back for another round of drilling before pursuing a full-scale mine.
The brewing tension surrounding the project in Wikieup represents a broader fight over lithium mining that is taking place in other states. Increasing use of electric cars and renewable energy has caused demand for lithium to soar, with projections for even more needed in the near future. But some observers are raising red flags, like in Wikieup, about the potential harmful environmental impacts of lithium mines.
Modern Gold Rush
Lithium is an element used to manufacture rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for a wide range of products, from cellphones to large-scale battery storage. Inside the batteries, lithium ions move between electrodes to produce electrons, producing power. Historically, the world's lithium supply has primarily come from the so-called "lithium triangle" in South America, where it is extracted from the brine in groundwater, and in Australia, where it is mined from hard rock. Now, with electric vehicle sales surging and the Biden administration pushing electric vehicles as a way to cut emissions, demand for lithium — and its value — is projected to skyrocket.
President Biden is seeking to bolster national security by localizing certain "critical" supply chains. In an executive order signed in late February, Biden directed the federal government to review weaknesses in supply chains for strategic minerals, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and large capacity batteries. The issue, according to a June 2021 White House report, is that the U.S. is "dangerously dependent" on other countries, like China, for key parts of the supply chain for those crucial products and resources. Lithium, in particular, is called out as a highly important resource that is primarily refined in China, a competing global power.
"Today, China refines 60 percent of the world’s lithium and 80 percent of the world’s cobalt, two core inputs to high-capacity batteries — which presents a critical vulnerability to the future of the U.S. domestic auto industry," the report states. "Maintaining America’s innovative and manufacturing edge in the automotive sector and other key industrial sectors will require the United States to undertake a concerted effort to shore-up sustainable critical material supply and processing capacity, expand domestic battery production, and support EV and storage adoption."
While the U.S. is thought to have some of the largest untapped lithium reserves in the world, it currently only has one operational lithium mine: Silver Peak in Nevada. The spiking demand for lithium has led to something of a lithium gold rush, with mining companies scrambling to establish new projects in Nevada and near the Salton Sea in California. South of the border, Mexico is trying to attract investors to extract its own lithium reserves.
But already, some of the projects are running into opposition. The proposed new mine in Nevada, Thacker Pass — a project originally approved by the Trump administration — has garnered backlash from local environmental watchdogs and indigenous communities. Several lawsuits have been filed to halt the project.
"We have a set of materials that are associated with green energy and the 'green economic transition' more broadly. They go into batteries, they're about moving beyond fossil fuels," said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a group that rates mining operations. "Indigenous communities and rural communities are saying that they won't see the benefit of this."
Wikieup is thought to be sitting on an immensely valuable amount of lithium located in sedimentary clay. In 2019, Hawkstone Mining completed its first round of exploratory drilling in the area. Based off of those findings, Doug Pitts, U.S. general manager for Hawkstone Mining, told Phoenix New Times that there is at least 320,000 metric tons of lithium in the area, and at lithium's current market price, the company stands to make a considerable profit. Pitts said that if they can produce 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium per year, that will net an estimated $260 million in annual gross revenue.
"It’s an attractive deposit," he said. "The prices are still going up."
Rodney Crum, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management's Colorado River District, said that he isn't aware of any top-down mandates or pressure from the Biden administration to fast-track the permitting process for Hawkstone Mining's exploratory drilling. He referred Phoenix New Times to a news release about how the agency had extended the deadline for public comment on the drilling. The comment period closed June 10.
Pitts is reluctant to disclose specific plans for the mine since they want to do a second round of exploratory drilling.
"We won’t know until we do the drilling," he said.
But Hawkstone Mining's basic concept of the mine is fairly established. Assuming that the new drilling yields good results, the company plans to build a mine in Wikieup on BLM land extract the lithium-filled clay sediment. It will be mixed with water to create a slurry and piped to a processing facility in nearby Kingman, where it will undergo a process called acid leaching, which involves using sulfuric acid to extract the lithium. The mine will be operational for 30 or 40 years and Hawkstone Mining wants to create some sort of apprenticeship program at Mohave Community College in Kingman so that locals can get jobs with the project.
While Pitts said that the acid leaching process is safe, adding that no acid or chemicals would contaminate the region, some environmental advocates say that the technique could have potentially harmful side effects.
"A lot of people are concerned about the acid leach process," said John Hadder, executive director of the Great Basin Resource Watch, which is currently suing the BLM in federal court to stop the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada. "It’s likely there’s residual acid that will leach out of something."
Some residents of Wikieup see Pitts' promises of the jobs and responsible environmental stewardship as all talk. Ranchers worry that the exploratory drilling phase — which would involve 145 separate drill holes on federal land — and the mine itself will puncture or pollute the groundwater that feed the wells that residents rely on to survive. And members of the Hualapai Tribe say that the project amounts to an attack on their heritage and historical territory.
"They should look for lithium at another site," Damon Clarke, chairman of the Hualapai Tribe, told New Times. "It’s desecrating our cultural and historical land, our sacred sites."
Standing amidst blooming saguaro cacti on Sonoran desert land owned by the BLM near Wikieup, Ivan Bender, a 56-year-old member of the Hualapai Tribe, points out bare patches of dirt where Hawkstone Mining conducted its initial exploratory drilling in 2019. Below the elevated plateau is a tightly clustered palm grove located on the nearby Cholla Canyon Ranch, where he works as the ranch caretaker. The ranch, which on tribal land, consists of low-slung plywood buildings and other structures, all of which is surrounded by a bright white picket fence. In the middle of the ranch, Cofer Hot Springs — or Ha’ Kamwe’ as its called by the Hualapai — is fed by hot water forced up through a volcanic fault. The springs and the surrounding land are considered sacred by the Hualapai.
So when Hawkstone Mining began drilling on federal land adjacent to the ranch in 2019, Bender took it personally.
"It was noisy, you heard the loud drilling going on up there, and then you’ve got vehicles going up and down the road," he said. "Would it be alright if I went to Arlington Cemetery and built me a sweat lodge on top of the Arlington Cemetery? Would they allow me to do that?"
The Hualapai people have lived in the region for thousands of years. Their territory covered large swaths of northeastern Arizona along the Colorado river, going as far south as the Bill Williams River and east to modern-day Prescott. Cofer Hot Springs was located along a route that traversed the southwest known as the Salt Song Trail, which Native American medicine men used to visit sacred sites, according to the tribe. After gold was discovered near Prescott in 1863, an Arizona State University research project states, Anglo-American miners and military units began arriving in the region, and fighting broke out between them and the Hualapai. Eventually, after the Hualapai were forcibly removed by the U.S. Army — only to later return to find white settlers occupying their homeland — President Chester A. Arthur created a reservation for the tribe in 1883. The reservation currently spans the south bank of the Colorado River west of the Grand Canyon with Peach Spring as its capital. It also includes small satellite reservations in Valentine and Wikieup.
Today, the Cholla Canyon Ranch serves as a gathering place for the Hualapai and other regional Native American tribes. There's a sweat lodge on the property and drug addiction workshops are held there. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the tribe was considering holding ranching educational programs for young people.
"This spring is a place for healing and medicine and other things that they have here. Our people are buried all through here. There's a grave just on the other side of this hill right here," Hualapai Tribe Councilmember Richard Powskey said while standing near Cofer Hot Springs. "Just because this environment is harsh and hot doesn’t mean it’s not good for anything. It serves a purpose."
To the Hualapai, Hawkstone Mining's plan to conduct another round of exploratory drilling is particularly dangerous. The drill holes would be placed on federal property that surrounds the ranch on three sides, and they fear the the drilling will damage the underground aquifer and harm Cofer Hot Springs. Bender, the ranch caretaker, claimed that water flow from the well that feeds the spring has already decreased after the initial 2019 drilling. On April 22, 2021, the Hualapai Tribal Council passed a resolution opposing the project. Chairman Clarke said the tribe is considering legal action to stop the mine.
"There is no water in the state of Arizona. Everyone is fighting for water. Here, in this area, it’s arid and there’s not a lot of water. Whatever water there is here has already been taken by farming and ranching. To allow a big industry to come in that’s going to use tons of water and ruin our water system ... then it’s a big problem," Powskey said. "This place can’t support something that uses a lot of water, whether it’s lithium or not. We’re all in support of changing our consumption of fossil fuels. But at the cost of the environment just to get that for more cellphones and whatever else, it’s a problem."
Pitts claimed that the exploratory drilling won't go deep enough to hit the aquifer that feeds Cofer Hot Springs. The max depth for the drill holes will be 360 feet, and he believes the water table is located at 700 feet. But the Hualapai Tribal leadership thinks the water table is much higher. Bungart, the tribe's historic preservation officer, said that measurements recently taken at a nearby well by a geo-hydrologist contracted by the tribe show that the bottom of the well is located at 306 feet. The geo-hydrologist allegedly first encountered water at 69 feet, according to Bungart.
"If this was Palm Springs would they do the same thing? No, you’d have all them rich people over there fighting to put a stop to it. But here we just have local ranchers, ordinary people that are trying to make a living off the land and trying to protect what they have here and take care of it because they need it in the future," Powskey said. "This spring has already been impacted. Something has happened. They’ve probably already punctured the aquifer and they’re not telling anybody."
Pitts said that he's offered to meet with the Hualapai Tribe and their geo-hydrologist to go over their findings. Hawkstone Mining is also open to putting up "sound berms" near Cholla Canyon Ranch to mitigate the noise from the drilling, as well as financing a new cultural center for the tribe. But, ultimately, the company has "no intention" of scuttling the project due to the tribe's concerns.
"If they say 'we don’t want anything you have to offer,' it’s probably going to come down to a decision that federal agencies make and there’s probably going to be a lot of litigation," Pitts said. "We think the project is going to be so good and enough in it for all of us, including them. We’re not going to give up yet."
'Shallow' Water Table
Local cattle ranchers and farmers are also concerned about the lithium mine's potential impact on the local supply. In Wikieup, where residents have to drive an hour away to Kingman for groceries, there is no municipal water supply. All residents get their water from groundwater wells. The prospect of an outside mining firm jeopardizing their water supply alarms them.
Pat Sherrill, 63, lives with his wife on a 45-acre farm just off of U.S. Route 93, which cuts right through Wikieup. They've lived there for over 30 years and grow produce like lettuce and tomatoes, as well as nursery stock. They get water from two wells on their property, which, according to Sherrill, don't run that deep.
"The water table is very shallow here, the level of water in my well is like 45 feet," he said. "I’m absolutely concerned about the pollution. Once they start doing this thing it’s going to get in the waterway. I just don’t see how it can’t. It’s too close."
"I’ve got a huge investment in this property," Sherrill added. "The last thing we need is for it to be destroyed."
Locals already have experience with mining operations coming in and out and consuming regional water supplies. The massive open-pit copper mine in Bagdad to the south, which is run by the Phoenix-based international mining firm Freeport-McMoRan, pumps in water from wells along the Big Sandy River north of Wikieup, according to the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources. And Bell Copper, a Canadian mining firm that has been operating in the area for years, began a new round of drilling in March 2021.
April Drane, a 48-year-old manager of the local Shell gas station and a lifelong resident of Wikieup, said that local water wells have been steadily depleted over time.
"I have three generations buried right here in the valley," she said. "The well my grandparents dug, they hit water at 30 feet. But over the time that Bagdad has taken our water, it dropped down to where we had to go 60 feet and over time."
"My grandfather used to ranch all of this area and the ranchers are having a hard time," she added. "I would like to see Wikieup have something. But not mining."
It's unclear exactly how much water the Big Sandy Lithium Mine Project would use. Pitts said that the mine itself will require, at most, an estimated 130,000 gallons of water per ton of lithium produced. And with the possibility of producing 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium per year, the total water usage figure starts to add up quickly.
However, Pitts also claimed that Hawkstone Mining will be able to reduce their water consumption by using effluent water from Kingman, which is treated sewage water that isn't potable. He also said that the company is considering shipping the extracted lithium to Houston, Texas for processing. But, ultimately, some groundwater will likely be used from both Kingman and Wikieup.
"We’ll never get to zero. We’re still going to need water," Pitts said. "Our biggest challenge is getting that water."
He added that buying privately held land in the region and building wells would be one way to get water for the project. But Pitts acknowledged that using local ground water will attract "real hard scrutiny."
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