The Panamint Valley is a vast scenic valley located between China Lake Naval Weapons Center and the dramatic Argus Range on the west and the often snow-capped Panamint Range and Death Valley National Park on the east. The Valley is part of the traditional homelands of the Newe (Western Shoshone) and Northern Paiute Tribes. Local tribes, such as the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley, continue to value the area and engage in traditional uses there. Panamint Lake has many sites which are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as districts, trail systems, or individual sites. The entire Valley is well preserved from development and may constitute a nationally significant cultural landscape.
The Valley is home to many species, including the iconic desert bighorn sheep, western snowy plover (a California Department of Fish and Wildlife Species of Special Concern) and rare plants such as the polished blazing star and Death Valley sandpaper-plant. The area contains unique desert wetland communities including mesquite bosques and freshwater and saltwater marshes. Endemic fairy shrimp occur in Panamint Lake, which is the remains of a Pleistocene lake that was originally 700 feet deep. The Lake encompasses two major springs, Warm Sulphur Springs and Post Office Springs.
The Valley is threatened by a lithium mine. On August 9, 2019, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), approved a drilling project that authorizes Battery Mineral Resources California, Inc., a subsidiary of an Australian mining company, to drill four 3-inch diameter wells to 2,000 feet deep on or immediately adjacent to the Panamint Dry Lake playa to look for lithium. BLM found that the exploratory drilling would not have any significant environmental impacts, despite many concerns raised by CalWild and other conservation groups. Some groups have filed an appeal to attempt to stop the project.
In June 2019, the Trump Administration released, “A Federal Strategy to Ensure a Reliable Supply of Critical Minerals.” This document directs the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to locate domestic supplies of the minerals on this list, ensure access to information necessary for the study and production of these minerals, and expedite permitting for mineral projects. Since lithium is on this “critical minerals” list, it is not surprising that the BLM approved this drilling project. This also means that if enough lithium is found by the mining company to make an actual mine economically feasible, that will be the next step – and BLM will be under pressure from the Trump administration to expedite and approve an industrial scale lithium brine mining operation. Given the very large size of the mining claim that the company holds (about 60 square miles), the potential enormity of the mining operation is breathtakingly frightening. An aerial photo of an existing lithium mine in Nevada gives some insight into what could happen to the Panamint Valley.
While lithium is needed for today’s battery technology, one does not know how long this will be true, but the impacts from a mine on the fragile desert environment will last numerous lifetimes, if not longer. The mining process will likely affect local water supplies, potentially poisoning communities. Chemical leakage is also a major concern when it comes to lithium mining. The lithium carbonate extraction process harms the soil, and can cause air pollution. Not only will the mine be an enormous ugly combination of pits and brine-filled water pools, it will necessarily rely on scarce desert ground water, likely negatively impacting the springs in the area such as Warm Sulphur Spring.
One of the drill sites will be located in a roadless area that the CalWild previously identified to have wilderness characteristics. BLM previously acknowledged that this roadless area had wilderness characteristics and several reported prehistoric sites. The other three drill sites will be located in a roadless area that BLM also identified to have wilderness characteristics. BLM acknowledged that this roadless area was an “important wildlife corridor for Nelson’s desert bighorn sheep and other upland species to move without disruption or interference across Panamint Valley between mountainous areas on NAWS lands, in the Slates, Panamints and Argus Ranges”. The drilling locations are also located in National Conservation Lands and the Panamint Lake Area of Critical Environmental Concern, due to the nationally significant ecological and cultural values of the area.