On a cold, windy day in late October, in one of the most remote and least populated regions of the state, a half-dozen workers prepared to drill another test hole in the arid volcanic rock. They were looking for deposits of lithium, a metal that has become indispensable to smartphones and electric-vehicle batteries, and which geologists estimate is so abundant here that mining companies from around the world are vying for a chance to make the next big discovery. The workers doing the drilling were contracted by Ioneer, an Australian company that has already invested millions in exploring what it believes could be one of the largest lithium producers in the world with an estimated net value of nearly $2 billion.

Like almost all of the surrounding territory, this land is owned by the federal government and overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. I had come here because I had learned that the Rhyolite Ridge project was threatening a rare wildflower called Tiehm’s buckwheat that is not known to grow anywhere else in the world. Standing with me on the ridgeline overlooking the work site was Patrick Donnelly, the state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that over the past three years has established itself as one of the most determined—and successful—foes of the Trump administration’s efforts to accelerate mining and development on public lands. The Rhyolite Ridge project boundary sits atop the plant’s tiny 21-acre habitat and from what Donnelly could see, the work was already having a damaging impact. Donnelly pointed to newly graded roads on the site, including a path that cut through two of the main populations of the flower. Three weeks before, Donnelly had filed a petition with federal and state officials to have the plant listed as an endangered species. Now, on a holiday weekend, the mine was buzzing and Donnelly was livid. He had seen nothing like this level of activity on three visits over the summer.

“What’s changed?” he asked. “Since September 1, well, we submitted our petition.” But rather than BLM limiting exploration activity at the site as Donnelly had hoped, the work appeared to have significantly expanded. “It’s like BLM is doubling down,” he said.

The Bureau of Land Management—BLM—approves the mining permits on all federal land. Since its creation in 1946, the agency has had a dual mission to balance the demands of industry and environmental protection. In this part of Nevada, that job falls to the BLM’s Battle Mountain district office, located more than 250 miles away. But according to a sweeping whistleblower complaint filed on October 4 by Dan Patterson, a five-year BLM employee and obtained by POLITICO and Type Investigations, the Battle Mountain office has repeatedly disregarded its own environmental rules and regulations to fast-track permits on public land. The historic antipathy toward federal oversight common to this region, combined with a presidential administration that has announced its hostility to decades of environmental law, has left public lands especially vulnerable.

“This … is more than disagreement with the decisions of his superiors,” the attorney with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who is representing Patterson, wrote in the complaint, “but stems from a sincere belief that the laws of the United States are being disregarded for the professional expediency of his superiors and the benefit of private parties, and that a culture of lawlessness has been engendered.”

Town of Tonopah, Nevada shown morning of Jan. 11, 2020.Image: M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico

According to Patterson’s complaint, the BLM district office has, over the past several years, ignored longstanding requirements that stem from the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act; approved mines and drilling without adequate review, turning the region into a “clearinghouse for federal permits”; and taken personnel off mining inspections in order to expedite development. In one case, according to the complaint, a mining engineer was removed from the review of a high priority open pit gold mine after making a recommendation to mitigate the long-term effects of toxic wastewater, which the company opposed because of cost. In another case, a group of well-connected families had been allowed to build recreational cabins on public land under the guise that they are actively mining. The whistleblower’s complaint also alleges that a lithium mine in Silver Peak, on the other side of Rhyolite Ridge, has illegally expanded onto BLM land without obtaining the necessary permits. Since raising questions about the district’s conduct, Patterson says he has faced retribution from his supervisors and is now on leave without pay.

The Department of the Interior’s inspector general is evaluating the allegations in the whistleblower’s complaint. In an emailed statement, BLM officials said they “stand ready to assist and provide information to the Office of the Special Counsel or the DOI Office of the Inspector General if asked.” Until that investigation is complete, BLM said it could not “comment on the truth or accuracy of the whistleblower complaint’s allegations or of Politico’s characterization of such allegations.”

Tiehm's buckwheat, a rare wildflower not known to grow anywhere else in the world.Image: M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico

But of all Patterson’s allegations, the Rhyolite Ridge project—which pits a foreign mining corporation against a handful of environmentalists defending a rare, ankle-high wildflower—epitomizes how vulnerable the regulatory apparatus has become to pressure from the Trump administration. In 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on minerals deemed critical to national security, including lithium, and called for “increasing activity at all levels of the supply chain.” Specifically, the order directed federal agencies to streamline the leasing and permitting processes. In July 2019, while visiting a major gold mine in Nevada, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who has made a point of reducing the time required to conduct environmental reviews, said the mining industry’s gross domestic product has increased 39 percent since Trump took office. In an interview with an Australian business publication, Bernard Rowe, managing director of Ioneer, the Australian company behind the Rhyolite Ridge project, said, “This designation of critical minerals that President Trump introduced a while back started the ball rolling in terms of streamlining permit process times and requirements, and our project has certainly been a beneficiary of that.”

BLM officials in western Nevada have enabled Ioneer to reap those benefits by the favorable way they have chosen to interpret and enforce existing environmental laws. Mining companies can avoid long and costly environmental reviews during their exploration phase as long as they disturb no more than five acres. But in this case Ioneer filed two separate notices, both just under the five-acre limit, about a mile and a half apart but within the boundaries of the same project. This, the whistleblower alleges, violates federal regulations that prohibit operators from so-called “segmenting” in order to avoid a preliminary environmental review.

Rowe disputes the whistleblower’s claims and says the filing of the two exploration notices was justified and that the project boundary was not firmly established at the time. “We did that based on our view that this was not segmentation,” Rowe said.

Rowe also underscored that his company is committed to sustainable development and that the project is part of a larger effort to transition away from the use of fossil fuels, particularly in the transportation sector, which is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The company also says it will protect the rare plant and has taken measures to ensure its survival.

But conservation groups like Patrick Donnelly’s, which is not categorically opposed to lithium mining, contend that the exploration work is already damaging the plant’s habitat. Conservationists fear that if the 640-acre proposed mine is ultimately approved, it will drive the buckwheat to extinction. The petition to have a plant listed as an endangered species can take years, even decades. Meanwhile, Ioneer says it hopes to begin production by 2023, and hopes to complete its mandatory environmental review in one year, a timetable that is unusually fast for a project that has raised questions about the survival of an endemic species.

Arnold Tiehm, who discovered the buckwheat in 1983 and for whom it is named, says the plant’s existence is precarious. “You could wipe the buckwheat out with a bulldozer in a couple of hours,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Dan Patterson, a Tonopah-based environmental protection specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, sits for a portrait among the mountains of the Kawich Range.Image: M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico