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Lithium Mining Threatens Arizona Tribe’s Sacred Spring

An Australian mining company threatens an irreplaceable cultural resource of the Hualapai people.

The spring at Ha’ Kamwe’ in Wikieup, Ariz.

Ha ‘Kamwe is a hot spring sacred to the Hualapai Tribe in Northern Arizona. An Australian company is threatening the spring with a proposed lithium mining project.

Ash Ponders for Earthjustice

Tribal elder Jorigine Paya learned from her elders how she must always show respect for the ancestors whenever she’s passing Ha ‘Kamwe, a sacred hot spring on land of the Hualapai Tribe in Northern Arizona.

“Even if you just pick up some earth and spread it around. They said our ancestors are welcoming you and protecting you,” she said.

The Hualapai are currently challenging a lithium mining project that threatens their land, water, and heritage sites.

Hawkstone Mining, an Australian company, has conducted exploratory drilling on federal land just yards from Ha ‘Kamwe. The Hualapai and other tribes have used the spring for centuries for healing, prayer, and rites of passage, such as childbirth and coming-of-age ceremonies for young women.

Over the past couple years, Hawkstone has been drilling on three sides of Hualapai land in Arizona’s Big Sandy River Valley. After the explorations are complete, Hawkstone plans to create an open-pit mine for lithium on the land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The BLM failed to follow federal law by allowing the exploratory drilling without a required analysis of impacts on the Hualapai’s cultural and spiritual resources. 

Earthjustice is representing the Tribe in their legal efforts to protect their heritage and to stand up for the wider principle – enshrined in law – that such impacts must be taken into consideration. Earthjustice lawyers have represented Indigenous groups in numerous states where companies are seeking to mine critical minerals while skirting federal laws.

Map of current and proposed drilling for lithium mining next to Ha ‘Kamwe (Cofer Hot Spring).
© Mapbox © OpenStreetMap / Source Data: Bureau of Land Management

A lithium rush

The demand for lithium is expected to grow given its role in the transition to clean energy. The mineral can be found in batteries, electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines.

This trend could mean big money for miners like Hawkstone. In June, the company’s general manager estimated that producing 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium could generate $260 million in gross annual revenue.

Earthjustice and Indigenous groups around the country support a speedy transition to clean energy and understand critical minerals are needed, but they want legal rights and cultural resources protected and to ensure federal agencies follow the law. In addition, both Indigenous groups and Earthjustice believe that alternatives to mining, such as incentivizing and strengthening the circular economy to reuse and recycle existing minerals, must be explored.

A flawed assessment

The Hualapai are worried that their sacred spring will suffer permanent damage from excessive drilling into the underground water table and aquifer that feed the warm water that flows through Ha ‘Kamwe.

Hualapai Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Martina Dawley
Hualapai Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Martina Dawley talks about exploratory lithium drilling that threatens the Tribe's sacred land, including the Ha’Kamwe’ spring.
Ash Ponders for Earthjustice

“It’s a sacred site,” said Martina Dawley, the tribal historic preservation officer on a recent afternoon over lunch in Wikieup, Ariz., the area of Hawkstone’s drilling. “It’s an area our ancestors have come to since time immemorial.”

Dawley talked about the project alongside other tribal leaders and Earthjustice attorneys, just hours after a morning meeting with BLM to discuss their concerns about how the agency is handling the project.

In representing the Tribe, Earthjustice attorneys found that BLM issued a draft environmental assessment, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but failed to properly analyze the impacts of the drilling project on cultural resources and threatened species. They also failed to consult with the Tribe before issuing the assessment. BLM concluded that because the drilling would not happen on tribal land there are no impacts on the Tribe to consider. But their land is just yards away from some of the drilling locations.

Wikieup Arizona Hualapai leaders
Hualapai leaders meet with Earthjustice staff near Wikieup, Arizona.
Ash Ponders for Earthjustice

The agency’s map shows 130 drilling sites that have been proposed, some of which were completed in 2018 and 2019 and some are still in the process of being drilled.

NEPA requires an assessment of impacts on adjacent land, such as Hualapai land and cumulative impacts from previous drilling projects. Ha ‘Kamwe is on Hualapai land in Cholla Canyon Ranch. The environmental assessment doesn’t reveal the chemical composition of the substances used in drilling or analyze their impact on the aquifer and water quality. Nor does it analyze the impact of drilling on water resources that reflect the current severe drought conditions in the region.

Tribes all over the nation find their reservations are increasingly threatened by mining interests. Of the untapped critical minerals, some 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt – all considered key for energy transition – are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

In addition to lithium drilling, the Tribe learned during the meeting with BLM that other mining companies – Kodiak Copper, Bell Resources, Zenolith, and Sitka Gold – are looking to drill dozens of holes deep underground near Hualapai land for additional lithium, copper, and other precious minerals.

No meaningful consultation

While industry eyes these riches, the government is not doing its duty.

“Despite the Hualapai’s very explicit communication with BLM, the Tribe is still waiting for meaningful tribal consultation and participation in the NEPA process, as well as a thorough analysis of the health and safety impacts on Ha ‘Kamwe,” said attorney Laura Berglan, who is leading the legal work for Earthjustice, who are co-counsel with Western Mining Action Project.

In his first few days in office, President Biden issued an executive order promising that all federal agencies would prioritize robust consultation with tribes. He also committed to applying environmental justice principles throughout all federal agencies.

But for the Hualapai, their rights are once again being trampled on for the profits of others.

Effects of drilling
Exploratory drilling for lithium has scarred the landscape near Hualapai land.
Ash Ponders for Earthjustice

Earlier in February, Phil Wisely, the tribal director of public works, and Ivan Bender, the caretaker of the land surrounding Ha ‘Kamwe, took attorneys down dirt and gravel roads to a few of the many drilling sites where companies hired by Hawkstone drilled hundreds of feet below ground. In each case, holes, several inches in diameter, and a mass of concrete were left behind, even though federal law requires the land to be restored to its natural state.

At one point, Bender wiped his eyes, saying that his ancestors were buried throughout the drilling area. Mountains surround this arid region of Arizona in all directions.

“We want to preserve this land for the next generation,” Bender said. “We don’t want to tell our children it was a beautiful country. We want to say this is your land.”

The Hualapai filed comments with BLM in June and supplemental comments in July, raising many objections with the incomplete and superficial environmental assessment. Now, the Tribe and Earthjustice are waiting for a revised environmental assessment that BLM officials say they’re working on. But attorneys think an even more thorough environmental impact statement is warranted.

Tribal Chairman Dr. Damon Clarke said the Hualapai are fighting to ensure BLM fully follows federal law.

“We don’t want our cultural resources to be needlessly ruined for the benefit of mining companies that only seek to exploit the land for profit,” said Clarke. “Our heritage is vital to us.”