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An open letter from Indigenous leaders on Princeton’s holdings in lithium mining

<h5>22 Chambers Street houses the Princeton University Investment Company (PRINCO).</h5>
<h6>Ben Ball / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
22 Chambers Street houses the Princeton University Investment Company (PRINCO).
Ben Ball / The Daily Princetonian

The following is an open letter and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit to the Opinion Section, click here.

To the Princeton community:

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We, the leaders of the movement to protect Thacker Pass, support the movement to pressure universities, pension funds, charitable foundations, and government bodies to divest from the fossil fuel industry. As people who live and work in Nevada, the driest state in the country, we see the impacts of global warming every day.

But in our haste to stop global warming, we cannot ignore issues of tribal sovereignty, conservation, and historical significance. Here in Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone territory in Nevada, we are facing an influx of huge lithium mines threatening our land, water, and people, driven by booming demand for electric car batteries and grid energy storage. The most advanced of these projects is Lithium Americas Corporation’s Thacker Pass mine, which is on the brink of being built. Lithium Americas claims this would be a “green” mine, but that is a lie. How can a mine be green if it uses 700,000 tons of sulfur per year and if that sulfur is generated in oil refineries, likely from tar sands? Heavy equipment, semi-trucks, and furnaces at the mine itself would produce carbon emissions of over 150,000 tons per year.

Operating the Thacker Pass lithium mine would be an environmental disaster. The mine area is critical habitat for the Greater Sage-grouse, which is barely avoiding extinction (its population has declined by 80 percent since 1965). It’s a migration corridor for pronghorn antelope and mule deer. It’s a nesting habitat for a variety of bird species. It’s home to the last old-growth sagebrush habitat in the area. It’s the only habitat for an endemic snail species. And the mine would use — and pollute — more than four million gallons of water daily.

Princeton University owns a substantial potion of Lithium Americas Corporation — and was recently even the fourth-largest single investor at 2.4 million shares worth more than $61 million, according to a Barron’s report. Lithium Americas has a track record of community abuse and environmental destruction: The company is 49 percent owner of a South American mining company called Minera Exar which has been accused of misleading and violating principles of free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities in the vicinity of their mine in Argentina.

Thacker Pass is a sacred site that has been occupied by Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone people since time immemorial. The mine threatens a massacre site where at least 31 Paiute men, women, children, and elders were killed by the U.S. Army in a surprise attack on Sept. 12, 1865. Native activists have said destroying this place is like “like putting a lithium mine on Arlington cemetery” and have been fighting to protect the site with public comments, protests, lawsuits, and more.

This is just the beginning. There are more than 15,000 lithium mining claims in Nevada. Our region is set to become a sacrifice zone for wealthy people to be able to drive cars “guilt-free.” But there is no such thing as “guilt-free” cars. A consumeristic society cannot save the planet, no matter what is under the hood of its cars.

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This is not just an issue for Nevada. It is a referendum for our nation. Will we double down on the path of destroying land to produce factory goods, or will we choose a path of true sustainability and justice?

We need your help. Princeton University must divest from Lithium Americas Corporation. To continue to profit from the destruction of land, water, wildlife habitat, and indigenous communities and sacred sites is morally reprehensible. Please, help us send a message that the transition away from fossil fuels cannot come at the expense of the planet and indigenous peoples.

Michon Eben is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Dean Barlese is a spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Inelda Sam, Elvida Crutcher, and Josephine Dick are Elders from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe.  Will Falk is the attorney for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Max Wilbert is the co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass.

Editor’s Note: Princeton University sold more than 90 percent of its stake in Lithium Americas in the second quarter of 2022, according to SEC filings and is no longer the fourth largest single investor, as released on Aug. 10.

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Correction: An editor's note to this open letter previously stated Princeton had sold 50 percent of its holdings in Lithium Americas. In fact, SEC filings show it has sold over 90 percent of holdings in the mining company.  Princeton's current holdings in the company were valued at over $4 million as of last filing.  The 'Prince' regrets this error.

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