Rare Flower May Scuttle First US Mine of Its Kind

In Nevada, Tiehm's buckwheat stands in the way of lithium production
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 17, 2020 9:25 AM CDT
Desert Wildflower May Scuttle a Mine for Green Technology
This photo shows Tiehm's buckwheat blooming at Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada.   (Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP)

A mining company is pushing hard to build a lithium mine in the Nevada desert, but a rare wildflower might make that impossible. The issue has one unusual twist from the usual environmentalists-vs-miners debate, notes New Scientist. In this case, the output from the mine would largely be used for green technology—lithium for electric-car batteries and boron for wind turbines. Most lithium comes from mines in Australia and South America, and the Australian company Ioneer wants to build the first such quarry in the US. The problem is that the location is the Rhyolite Ridge in western Nevada, which just happens to be the only place in the world where a plant called Tiehm's buckwheat is known to grow, per the Nevada Independent. "That puts the buckwheat on a one-way path to extinction," Patrick Donnelly of Nevada's Center for Biological Diversity tells New Scientist.

The first planned quarry alone would wipe out 65% of the plants in existence. Ioneer maintains that the plant could be relocated, and the company is funding research to that effect. But the AP reports that the botanist in charge of the project is pushing back against pressure by Ioneer to present premature findings of success with seedlings. "I feel like maybe one very important thing isn't clear, and that's that these plants could die at any stage of this experiment," wrote Beth Leger of the University of Nevada-Reno in an email obtained by conservationists. Generally speaking, botanists still don't know much about the plant, which was discovered in 1983. Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service, acting on a CBD petition, has begun a one-year review of the issue. If it deems the plant to be endangered, the mine project might be dead. (More lithium stories.)

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