By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
Winnemucca, a town of more than 8,600 residents off Interstate-80 in Northern Nevada, is proud of it’s reputation as a great place to raise a family and cheer for the Lowry High Buckaroos athletic teams.
It’s also billed as the “Friendliest Town in Nevada” by Travel Nevada.
That, however, has not led to people flocking to live there.
“Our community has been pretty stagnant as far as growth over the last 20 years,” Winnemucca Mayor Rich Stone said on Nevada Newsmakers recently. “The population has remained about the same.”
The town grew by just about 1,000 citizens from 2010 to 2020, according to U.S. Census figures.
Now, however, Winnemucca and the surrounding ranch and farm lands are bracing for a stampede of growth in a town known for Basque culture and the Buckaroo Hall of Fame western museum.
Construction and earth moving have begun for a massive mining operation and processing plant for the largest-known deposit of lithium in the world. It’s found at Thacker Pass — about 50 miles from Winnemucca — in a volcanic crater formed 16 million years ago.
An astonishing 600 million tons of lithium is probably buried there, Jon Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas, told host Sam Shad.
“There is lithium everywhere here, just the geology of it,” Evans said.
The race to acquire lithium has become an international competition, since it is the key component to power military weapon systems, electric vehicles, cell phones, pacemakers and many other high-tech wonders of the modern world.
Lithium is also necessary for storage batteries for wind and solar energy — and for emergency backup systems for large energy grids.
Mining and producing lithium in the United States is also a key component in President Biden’s climate-change agenda.
“The economy is changing and there is a real strategic imperative here,” Evans said about the need for lithium production. “It’s in weapons systems, it is in stationary storage, renewables, so this is key for our country.”
Building the mining area’s infrastructure and processing plant will require almost 2,000 construction workers, Evans said. When completed, the mine will employ about 300 full-time workers. Studies show there’s enough lithium there for 40 years or more of mining operations.
“They will still be developing this (mine) when we are no longer in office,” Mayor Stone said.
He knows, however, his town will feel impacts of the mining operation very soon, during his term in office.
“My concern is, how is it impacting our city?” Stone said. “What we are preparing for is 2,000 construction jobs to build the facility in the next two years. That’s about 25 percent of the city’s (current) population. Not all at one time but it is impacting your city.”
Lithium Americas, (and its subsidiary Lithium Nevada) has secured land on the east end of Winnemucca for ‘The Lodge,’ a workforce hub with temporary facilities where the construction workers will live, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Behavior of construction workers
Stone, however, is concerned about the behavior of Lithium America’s construction workers when they let off steam in Winnemucca establishments serving alcohol — somewhat reminiscent of a Nevada boom town of the 1800s.
“I think Lithium (Americas) is doing a good job to build a camp and house them and provide services for them,” Stone said. “But they will still be in our city. They still will be coming to our businesses and restaurants and that will have a positive impact.
“But when we have that many construction workers that aren’t living with there families, and Nevada, being a 24/7 state, it presents some challenges, law-enforcement wise,” he said.
“They are out at the bars, and most of them (bars) don’t have clocks to tell them when to go home and most of them will be open as long as they are selling,” Stone said.
The mayor’s worries stem from past experiences.
“So in the past, with the gold mines, when they had large construction projects, we’ve had issues with employees getting into bar fights and things like that,” Stone said.
Any issues can be quickly resolved, he said.
“Law enforcement has a good relationship with the contractors, usually, and if they have issues with certain individuals, they’ll contact them and it will either be corrected or they’ll be dismissed from the job,” Stone said. “So from that standpoint, it is a bigger burden on law enforcement.”
Humboldt County Commissioner Ron Cerri, a fourth-generation Nevada rancher who lives near the tiny town of Orevada, is concerned about all the new people the lithium mining will bring to his corner of Nevada. He lives 50 miles from the mine site, “as the crow flies,” he said.
“They are going to bring in 1,000 to 1,500 workers to build the processing plant and that is going to change this community, whether we like it or not,” Cerri said.
Cerri is confident Lithium Americas will be “good neighbors.”
“They are going to try to be good neighbors, try to work with us where we can,” Cerri said. “We’re not always going to see eye-to-eye. It is not always going to be rainbows and butterflies but for the most part, I think there are a lot of issues that we can resolve if we communicate.”
Part of that “good neighbor policy” of Lithium Americas was signing a contract with the nearby Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe to hire and train tribal members to work at the mining site. Lithium Americas also agreed to build a community center and daycare center to allow tribal members to balance work and family.
However, many Native Americans also joined environmentalists in mounting lengthy legal objections to the Thacker Pass mining operation, before U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du allowed construction to begin in March.
Also, Lithium Americas plans to move a school that is now too close to the mining site, promising to build a new school to rival any in the Humboldt County School District — on land currently owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
“It will cost between $12 million and $15 million. We’re a small community and we’re going to have one of the best schools in Humboldt County,” Cerri said.
Cerri admits to mixed emotions about the lithium mine. One stems from his duty as a commissioner; another from his life as a fourth-generation rancher in Humboldt County.
“Sometimes I have conflicting views on the project,” he said. “As a county commissioner, I look at it as this is going to be a big economic boost. I think we all appreciate that this is going to give us additional diversification in this county.
“(However), agriculture has always been a mainstay in Humboldt County and so from a ranching and farming perspective, we’re concerned about the impact that this project can have on our water,” Cerri said. “We understand that the state engineers are not going to approve additional water out of this basin. It is over-appropriated already.”
He’s concerned the mining may impact agriculture in a region where water is precious.
“The water this project is going to take will be substantial and they will have to purchase it from the farmers down in the valley and then move it to another well,” Cerri said. “When they move that water, that is going to leave that land vacant (bare) and we don’t want to see it go to dust or grow weeds.”
He and others have shared their concerns with mining officials.
“We in the community have a group that we call the ‘Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens Group,’ ” Cerri said. “We’ve been meeting regularly with Lithium Nevada to work out some of these issues and let them know what our concerns are.”
The water for the lithium mining for Phase One of the endeavor will come from the Quinn River Valley, Evans said.
“It’s right over the ridge in back of us here,” he said, while at the mine site.
“We have more (water) than we need for Phase One (of the project). It is a very productive aquifer. Our water use for Phase One is what you would see in a medium sized farm.”
The mining operation will be good stewards with water, Evans promised.
“We have extensive engineering to recycle … to be as harmonious as we can. Every drop of water is used over seven times.”
Pulling the lithium out of the ground is scheduled to start in 2026.
“(The year) 2026 is our target,” Evans said. “I am expecting to start producing fairly quickly because the process from ore to final product is about 24 hours.”
The lithium extracted from Thacker Pass will go to the General Motors Corp., which has partnered with Lithium Americas by investing about $650 million into the Thacker Pass project.
“They are essentially lending us their balance sheet to super-charge the project,” Evans said. “And in addition to that, there will be debt financing with the U.S .government, which we are working to close before the end of the year.”
After the lithium ore is mined, the finished product will only take about 24 hours to produce in the on-site processing plant.
“The plant is really the heart of this project,” Evans said. “The material that comes out of this is essentially pharmaceutical grade, 95 percent pure.”
When it leaves Nevada, the lithium will be headed to GM plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
“GM will buy everything the mine produces for the next 10 to 15 years,” Evans said.
GM moved fast to secure the contract with Lithium Americas, Evans said. It forced other car manufacturers, who also plan expansion of EV production, to look elsewhere.
“A lot of folks were interested but GM just moved really quickly,” he said.
Workers will be required to work in 12-hour shifts and lunches will be available on site, Evans said.
Some workers are expected to commute from Battle Mountain and Lovelock. Workers will park in Winnemucca, then be bused to the site.
“We’ll bus people from Winnemucca, pretty much like the parking lots in Winnemucca for Nevada Gold,” Evans said, referring to another mining endeavor in the area.
Busing from Winnemucca to the job site will also save gas in the employees’ personal vehicles, Evans said.
Many of the workers hired for permanent employment at the mine will most likely be locals, Evans said.
“The focus there, obviously, is to contract as much from the local community as possible,” he said. “The best employees are your neighbors. So that will be the real focus and I’m sure some of those folks will also be working in the construction (of the mining operation).”
Once the construction of the mine is complete and construction workers go to the next job, Winnemucca will still need housing for the mine’s full-time staff of 300 and their families.
“Housing is an issue,” Stone said. “We don’t have that many houses right now that are available. We have taken some money and set it aside for expanding the water and sewer systems.
“We have already done some projects, expanded some that can be built upon,” Stone said. “The issue is, we don’t have the contractors to do the construction. That’s our biggest challenge, getting contractors to build housing.”
The mining of lithium could generate more money into the pockets of Winnemucca citizens, produce taxes to help improve the quality of life, help local merchants prosper and bring more national brands into the area, city officials said.
“Our residents would like to have a Lowe’s or an Olive Garden and things like that,” Stone said. “But our population kind of prohibits that and people get frustrated, thinking we’re trying to keep businesses out. We’re not. We’re receptive to any business that comes to town.”
Michelle Hammond Allen, Humboldt County Economic Development Officer, sees specific areas that need expansion.
“The service industries are really important,” she said. “Of course, we need more restaurants and hotels and motels. Right now, our hotels and motels get filled up by contract workers from the mines. And so it drives our room prices up in the community. And often times, middle of the week, you can’t find a room in Winnemucca.”
National home builders are considering operations in Winnemucca and Hammond Allen said she has given tours of the town to some builders.
“We welcome new business but we want it done right,” she said. “We are not a test field for something to make a quick buck.”