RENO, Nev. (AP) — An Australian mining company has agreed to a moratorium on new activities at a planned lithium mine in Nevada in exchange for conservationists dropping a lawsuit to protect a rare desert wildflower they say doesn't exist anywhere else in the world.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed notice in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on Friday that it was voluntarily withdrawing its lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking a ban on all drilling and road building at the site on federal land as a result of the newly reached agreement with Ioneer USA Corp.
The center filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October to list Tiehm's buckwheat as an endangered species.
The lawsuit filed weeks later accused the Bureau of Land Management of illegally dividing the mining operations into two separate projects so as to bypass its own regulations requiring a formal environmental review and public comment on any land disturbances larger than 5 acres (2 hectares).
The state of Nevada then announced it was launching a comprehensive review of the status of the wildflower found only in the Silver Peak Range, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) southeast of Reno.
“Tiehm's buckwheat is a unique Nevada treasure, but it's also just one of many species threatened by the Trump administration's disturbing push to give away our public lands to mining companies,” said Patrick Donnelly, the center's Nevada state director.
Ioneer says it ceased exploration at the site last month, and the Bureau of Land Management subsequently terminated its formal exploration notices. That means the company cannot resume operations other than for reclamation anyway until the agency approves a new operation plan.
As part of the new agreement, the company said it wouldn't seek such approval without notifying the conservation group. It also agreed to use only hand-held equipment for reclamation activities within 30 feet (9 meters) of the plant.
“Our agreement saves this delicate little flower from immediate danger,” Donnelly said Friday. “But Tiehm's buckwheat is still threatened by a destructive open-pit mine proposal. Gov. (Steve) Sisolak and state officials must protect this rare Nevada beauty before it's too late.”
The estimated 20,000 to 43,000 individual plants that remain are found only in specific soil conditions on 21 acres (8 hectares) spread across 3 square miles (8 sq. kilometers) of Nevada in a narrow elevation band between 5,960 and 6,200 feet (1,816 and 1,889 meters), according to the petition filed Oct. 7 seeking protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"There is only one location of this plant on the planet," the petition said. “Without ESA protection, the endemic plant is at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future.”
Bradley Crowell, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said in October the flower hadn't faced significant threats in the past because of its remote location, but that's changed with new interest in lithium deposits in the area. Lithium is a key component in the manufacturing of batteries for electric cars such as the ones made at Tesla's battery factory east of Reno.
Ioneer argued in court filings last month that it has maintained at least 200 feet (60 meters) separation between its activities and the nearest plants. In those three cases, it said it came within 50 feet (15 meters) and placed appropriate protective measures to ensure none was disturbed.
“Not a single plant has been harmed,” the company said.
“Ioneer applied considerable resources to study the plant and development plans to ensure that the plants thrive during Ioneer's activities and after the exploration is complete,” it said. “Plaintiff makes unsupported claims regarding species extinction.”