'We’re just somebody little:' Amid plans to mine lithium deposit, Indigenous, rural communities find themselves at the center of the energy transition

Maxine Redstar’s office on the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation sits in a valley surrounded by mineral-rich mountain ranges that stretch past the Oregon border, only a few miles to the north. 

It’s May, and after a short spurt of precipitation in an otherwise record dry year for Nevada, the valley has turned pastel-green with sagebrush dotting the land. Near the administration building and Redstar’s office, a sign is planted in the ground. It reads: “Keep Your Aboriginal Rights!!”

Redstar, as chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, is at the center of a fight over a planned lithium mine in Thacker Pass, Peehee mu’huh in Paiute. Part-administrator and part-spokesperson, her phone rings often, and documents are scattered across her desk.

Long before Redstar heard of Thacker Pass, she was following the national news about clean energy. Now the news has come home. The rural communities that encircle Thacker Pass, the site of a major lithium mine, are at the frontlines of an energy transition from climate-warming fuels, coal mining and combustible engines to solar energy, lithium mining and electric vehicles. 

The project, approved by federal land managers in January, spans 17,933 acres. Some of that land will be used for exploration. The mine itself — an open pit and processing facilities — would be built on about 5,545 acres of federal public land with an expected lifespan of 41 years.

For many residents, one mine is enough of a concern. But several companies have mineral rights in the area, clear into Oregon, and this sparsely-populated section of the Great Basin could soon become a booming mining district. There is exploration for gold too, Redstar notes. 

“We see on this mountainside here, they’re doing exploratory drilling,” Redstar said. “Well, they found gold. So now what? Where are we going to be sitting ten, fifteen years from now?”

Indigenous peoples have relied on Thacker Pass for food and traditional medicine, including toza root and old-growth sagebrush, which is used to make tea. Last month, a group of tribal members opposing the mine wrote a public statement about the land’s spiritual significance. 

“In addition to environmental concerns, Thacker Pass is sacred to our people,” they wrote. “Thacker Pass is a spiritually powerful place blessed by the presence of our ancestors, other spirits, and golden eagles – who we consider to be directly connected to the Creator.”

After federal land managers approved the mine in January, members of tribes from across the Great Basin began visiting the mine site, where protesters have set-up a 24/7 encampment. 

In the months since Redstar was seated as the tribal chairwoman in December 2019, she has followed through on a petition, signed by tribal members, to disengage with Lithium Americas, the company behind the Thacker Pass mine, which was fast-tracked through an environmental review process during COVID-19. But state and federal officials have backed the project — and it is a major deposit, projected to yield 66,000 tons of lithium per year when fully operational. 

“We’re just somebody little that’s trying to preserve what we have,” Redstar said last month. “Do we stand a chance? You know, that’s the big question. We’re going to give it our best shot.”

Redstar’s rhetoric is measured, and she tries to approach issues with an open mind, having to balance the interests of all tribal members. She said “there’s a mix” of opinions about the mine, with one group pushing to prioritize the economic opportunity that lithium extraction might offer.

“I’m not going to put a price on culture,” she said. “I’m not going to put a price on tradition. But we’re a small tribe. We’re an indigent tribe. So it’s hard to balance. It’s hard to balance that.”

“I respect the voice of our older members of the tribe,” Redstar added. “But I also have young people that are looking for guidance, that are looking toward being here for a very long time.”

Maxine Redstar, chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, stands in front of the tribe’s office building on May 19, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

In the communities closest to the mine, opinions about the project range from active opposition to quiet support. Many people are resigned, feeling that the mine can’t be stopped, that their concerns are small in the national push to secure a domestic lithium supply chain for batteries.

Everyone is watching for what happens next. There is little doubt the mine is going to change the area. The small town of Orovada sits at the base of the Santa Rosa Range and straddles both sides of U.S. 95. Almost every truck going to Thacker Pass has to travel through Orovada, where there is a gas station (with an electric-vehicle charger), a community center and a school.

Driving through Thacker Pass, cars often come to a halt to let cattle cross the highway. On the other side of the pass, the one-lane road becomes unpaved and rough. The road opens up into Kings River Valley, an agricultural community that sits at the base of the Montana Mountains. 

The mine will bring in dozens of trucks to haul rock and chemicals. Workers will be bussed into the area from Winnemucca about 65 miles away. Parents are worried about traffic (exiting U.S. 95 is unsafe and local residents say transportation officials have done little to help). To deal with safety, the mine has offered to pay to relocate Orovada’s K-8 school. Given the costs for land and new construction, estimates for the new school range from about $10 to $12 million. 

Ranchers are worried about water and wildlife. One rancher is taking his concerns to court and challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s decision to approve the mine. A coalition of environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit, a case that has led to a delay in excavation plans.

“People don’t live out here for any other reason than just the fact that it’s peace, it’s quiet,” said Stacey Edwards, part of a concerned citizens group and a fifth-generation Nevada rancher who is raising her family in Orovada. “There’s not a van or a car that drives by that you don’t know.”

“It’s going to change a lot of our everyday lives,” she added.

Dusty Edwards moves an irrigation pipe in the morning hours with his son, Rhett, on May 19, 2021. He says this is one of the driest seasons on record. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A small community, and that’s fine

The signs of a changing climate are everywhere this year. Drought has made it harder to earn a living as a rancher in the Great Basin, an environment where water was already scarce. On a morning in May, Dusty Edwards, Stacey’s husband, moves an irrigation line with his son Rhett.

This is one of the worst drought years Dusty can recall, and it’s critical to use water wisely. 

Stacey Edwards, born and raised in Orovada, met Dusty Edwards in Boise. They moved back to Orovada to raise their family, and Dusty took a job ranching with Stacey’s father, Ron Cerri. She said that sometimes she feels her kids are missing out on the opportunities that other kids have in big cities. But growing up as part of a ranching family in Orovada, she says, can make a person.

“You have to be self-sustainable,” she said. “You have to know how to take care of yourself.”

Her daughter Addyson gets up early to feed her horse and two steers, hauling red buckets out to them before she goes to the Orovada School, the same school Stacey went to. Addyson also feeds five dogs and two cats. Her horse is named Mandy. The steers are Bingo and Angus. 

“We’re not going to stop it,” Stacey said of the mine at Thacker Pass, which is across the valley. “There’s not a person in this world that can convince me that we are. I think that the need for it is there. I understand that the need for it is there. But you have to be able to also live with it.”

The Orovada School on April 27, 2021. The mining company has offered to relocate and rebuild the school because of traffic concerns. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Edwards is a member of Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens, a community group formed by local residents of Orovada and Kings River Valley. The group has organized regular public meetings at the community center gym. State environmental regulators have presented at the meetings to go over the permitting process — so have the county superintendent and mine representatives.

The meetings can get testy, and skepticism is often expressed in the form of questions. In late April, when an executive from a trucking company, Savage Services, came to talk about their practices for hauling molten sulfur, local residents peppered him with a long list of questions. 

It turns out, according to a fact sheet Savage Services left at a check-in table for the meeting, the company’s trucks transport about three million tons of molten sulfur each year. Its truck drivers, according to the fact-sheet, receive extensive training in safely transporting sulfur.

Yet residents have qualms about commercial trucks driving sulfur down U.S. 95 — where cars speed and there is no safe turning lane into Orovada. Once the sulfur reaches Thacker Pass, the mining company plans to make sulfuric acid needed to process the mined rock. For many, the sulfur plant, which requires a state air quality permit, gives them more pause than the mine.

The day after the meeting about trucking sulfur, Ron Cerri is sitting at home, getting ready to put out mineral supplements for his herd and visit his daughter’s family. Cerri is serving his second term on the Humboldt County Commission, and residents in the Orovada area often approach him with their concerns. The chemical plant, he said, “really has everyone’s attention.”

“It’s not so much the mine,” he said. “That’s my opinion, anyway.”

The community is grappling with how to move forward. The public meetings are a way to sort through their issues, and Terry Crawforth has taken on much of the work of organizing them.

Crawforth lives in Kings River Valley, and his home is one of the closest to the mine. Sitting on his porch, he gestures to the Montana Mountains behind him, the range where the mine would be located. It’s the mountains that prompted him to move here from Sparks after 42 years at the Nevada Department of Wildlife, including a term as director. The mountains are rich with wildlife.

In January, the state wildlife agency wrote in a comment letter that it believes the plan “will likely result in adverse impacts to wildlife, ground and surface waters, and riparian vegetation within and outside the project area. These impacts include effects to an array of species and will likely have permanent ramifications on the area’s wildlife and habitat resources.”

As local residents started to gather information, Crawforth said “the more concerned people got” about everything from air quality and wildlife to the school and transportation. He helped form the citizens group to advocate for residents. If the mine is coming, they want to be at the table.

Terry Crawforth, a former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, gestures to the base of the Montana Mountains from his home on April 18, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For someone who wears a shirt that says “CAUTION GRUMPY OLD MAN,” he shows few signs of grumpiness. He is affable on a warm Sunday morning, and has a good sense of humor. 

It’s not only this one mine. Local residents, he said, are concerned with what happens when more lithium claims are developed. There are claims throughout the Montana Mountains, and some of them are held by Lithium Americas. The company, for its part, has pledged to avoid blasting at higher elevations, where there is critical habitat for the iconic Greater sage-grouse (wildlife managers, Crawforth notes, call the Montana Mountains the “sage-grouse holy land”).

But people are skeptical of that promise. If demand for lithium continues rising, Crawforth and others believe there is going to be immense pressure to mine claims throughout the area. 

State government officials view lithium mining as an economic opportunity, but residents said they are doing little to offset the effects on communities taking the brunt for the greater good.

“If you want to be the lithium capital of the world,” he said, “there’s a cost to that.”

“I think people here feel like they are treated like, ‘Well, it’s just a bunch of country bumpkins out in the wastelands in Nevada,’” Crawforth said. “And these people are not dummies. They have made a living for 150 years in some pretty harsh environment, actually.”

Down the street, Wendelyn and Martin Muratore have breakfast ready — homemade bacon, string hash browns, pancakes and eggs. They originally moved to Kings River Valley after living in California, but they still go back from time to time: They ship hay to organic dairies north of San Francisco. Hunters regularly stay with them when they get tags in the Montana Mountains.

Neither of them want to see the mine go in. Wendelyn has joined Great Basin Resource Watch, the mine watchdog group suing over the fast-tracked environmental review. And Martin rejects the mentality many state and county politicians have, especially in Winnemucca — that if you are not growing as a community, you’re dying. In the valley, he said, people don’t think that way.

“I don’t want any growth,” he says. “There’s no water for it, no need for it.”

Martin Muratore, who farms in Kings River Valley, grades his field with a tractor on April 28, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A climate crisis and a lithium boom

Thacker Pass sits at the southern edge of the McDermitt Caldera, a vast geologic structure — the remnant of an extinct supervolcano that erupted roughly 16 million years ago. For decades, companies eyed this caldera in and around the Montana Mountains for minerals. First, Chevron came looking for uranium in the 1970s, and then, in the 1980s, the company turned to a search for lithium.

By the mid-2000s, exploration in the area kicked off again. Lithium Americas eventually picked up where Chevron had left off, assessing the feasibility of mining lithium from the volcanic clay. 

During the nearly fifteen years since the company restarted exploration in the area, the global dynamics around lithium mining have changed. In 2015, the United States and other countries adopted the Paris Agreement as a global response to climate change. Since then, carmakers have committed to putting more electric vehicles on the road, driving up demand for lithium.

Today, Jonathan Evans, president and CEO of Lithium Americas, says young engineers contact him on LinkedIn every week. They want to work in an industry focused on climate change. 

“This isn’t a gold mine,” he said in an interview. “This isn’t an oil refinery. It’s something [where] they can utilize their skill-sets, utilize their smarts, to address an issue that is dear to them.”

Quietly, over the past several years, the company has built-up its physical infrastructure within the state and has made in-roads with politicians. The company has an office in Winnemucca and two spaces in Reno — one is a process testing plant in a non-discrete one-story building. 

A Lithium Americas pilot plant technician shovels tailings into a bin after they went through a lithium extraction process at the company’s test plant in Reno on May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Technicians at the testing facility put ore from Thacker Pass through mechanical and chemical processes to separate the lithium material from the clay. The process relies on methods that the company says are meant to reduce acid use and are less intensive than other types of mining. 

Lithium Americas, in its mine plan documents, has emphasized that the company is working to be as efficient as possible with their ore, acid use and energy. At the testing facility, water and materials are squeezed out of the ore to the point that unused rock, or tailings, are bone-dry. 

On the mine site, the company plans to operate a steam turbine and generate electricity using excess heat from the sulfur plant. Some of that electricity would be exported back to the grid. 

Lithium Americas has also built out a political team. Last month, the New York Times reported that the company hired a D.C. lobbying firm that included a former Trump administration aide.

In January, Gov. Steve Sisolak touted lithium mining in his State of the State speech, arguing that “Nevada is home to the most accessible lithium reserves in North America.” The Sisolak administration has also offered financial support to the project. Last year, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development approved tax incentives worth about $8.6 million over 10 years. 

Those tax incentives frustrated some local residents who felt that the state should not forgo any revenue at a time when funding was needed to build infrastructure for increased mining activity.

According to Evans, the company plans to answer those concerns and reinvest the tax incentive in the local community. Evans said that “the benefits of that should flow to the community itself.”

Tim Crowley, the vice president for government and community relations for Lithium Americas’ Nevada division, speaks to a community meeting of concerned citizens in Orovada on April 27, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

At meetings in Orovada, Tim Crowley, the former head of the Nevada Mining Association, has represented the company. He serves as Lithium Americas’ vice president of government and community relations for its Nevada division, Lithium Nevada Corporation. 

In one meeting last month, as local residents and a group of protesters camping out at the mine grilled Crowely, he said the company’s internal canvassing had suggested widespread support.

“We know from canvassing this area and sponsoring the BuildNV program, that there are many people right from this community who are looking forward to this project,” Crowley said in April. 

One of those supporters is Loyd Sherburn, a rancher in Orovada who sold water rights to the mining company. If the economy needs more lithium, he would like to see mining done in the United States, where there are stricter environmental standards than in other countries. 

“I’m a firm believer that we should be energy [independent] in this country, and not dependent on someone else to shut something down because they go ‘Hey, we just took all the lithium from Argentina and you ain’t getting any more,’” Sherburn said. “So I see this project going in. I just want to see it done as environmentally-friendly and safely as we can for our community.” 

The process testing facility helped convince Sherburn that the company’s model was sound.

“If they can duplicate what they showed me there, my big concerns about dirty air and dirty water have pretty well gone out the window,” he said. “Yeah, I don’t have any concerns.”  

Sherburn has ranched in Orovada for more than four decades, and he understands where his neighbors are coming from. It’s on the top of everyone’s mind, and people are concerned about the changes the mine could bring. Sherburn said the mine might attract a few more people, but most workers, he thinks, will opt to live in Winnemucca. As for him, he plans on staying in town. 

“As long as I’m alive, I plan on living and dying here,” he said.

Illyssa Fogel, the owner of the Diamond A Motel in McDermitt, a town next to the Oregon border and near the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, is another supporter of the mine. The proposal didn’t come as a surprise to her, either. Geologists have been staying at her motel for years.

Fogel, who has a law degree, was raised in the Reno-area, and she is worried about the effects of climate change. When Fogel bought the motel in the early 2000s, she had been living in Los Angeles. But having grown up in Nevada, she saw an opportunity for the border town to grow. 

Illyssa Fogel, owner of the Double A Motel in McDermitt on May 19, 2021. Fogel supports the economic opportunities that the mine could bring to the small town. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

At the time, in the early 2000s when she purchased the motel and moved to McDermitt, Fogel was interested in developing a casino (Fogel had worked in casinos and also had been a lawyer for the Gaming Control Board). At one point, she owned the bar across the street from the motel. But her efforts to grow the town hit roadblocks. Now with a lithium mine coming, Fogel said she sees a new opportunity for economic growth — while tackling the climate crisis. 

She has seen the climate change in the area, with warmer winters and warmer summers.

“It's my understanding that this is one of the largest, if not the second largest, lithium reserve on the planet, and certainly the biggest supposedly in the Northern Hemisphere,” Fogel said. “Why aren't we working on getting this out and getting rid of carbon emissions and all that kind of stuff?” 

Lithium Americas also found an unexpected ally in Glenn Miller, a founder of Great Basin Resource Watch, one of the environmental groups suing over the mine in federal court. Earlier this month, Miller resigned from the group's board of directors.

Miller, who spent much of his career criticizing the mining industry, said he supports the mine because the U.S. needs a domestic supply of lithium to address climate change, which he views as the most serious environmental threat facing the globe. Compared to mining methods used for gold, he argued that the processes Lithium Americas plans to use are far more “benign.”

"From the technical perspective, I think this is a good mine and mining a deposit that is really important for the country,” said Miller, who taught environmental science at UNR for decades.

“Most environmental issues are a question of values,” Miller said.

Eddie Smart stands in front of a former mercury mine near the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s reservation on April 17, 2021. Smart is concerned about more mines coming to the area. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A tribe cancels its engagement agreement

Mercury was discovered outside of McDermitt in the early-20th century and was mined through the 1980s. The quicksilver mines that worked the deposit now sit dormant across the valley from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s reservation. For years, the mines employed tribal members, bringing stable jobs but also leaving contaminated land and public health concerns. 

Eddie Smart’s father mined for mercury, and he recounts a detailed history of the mines. There was the Cordero Mine and the McDermitt Mine, both considered to be top producers of mercury when they were operational. Each mine left a significant footprint on land that was taken from the tribe. The narrow dirt road to the Cordero mine passes a massive rust-tinted mine pit.

“We’ve been put through the test,” he said. “We’re still surviving.” 

Earlier this year, Smart supported an effort to petition the tribal council to disengage with Lithium Americas. Under previous leadership, the tribe’s chairman had entered into an agreement with the company, even before federal land managers finished the mine permitting process. Lithium Americas had pledged to invest in the tribe’s workforce and bring high-paying jobs to the area.

Several tribal elders and traditional members felt blindsided by the agreement. They, and many Paiute and Shoshone peoples from across the Great Basin, said they did not give their consent.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t like it,” Smart said of Thacker Pass. “Traditional people.”

Several tribal members, like Smart, had family members who worked in the mercury mines, and they said they know of former mine workers who had cancer. Redstar, the tribe’s chairwoman, said her grandfather and father worked in the Cordero mine, which went online in the 1930s. 

“My grandfather passed away from cancer, as did my grandmother,” Redstar said. “A lot of other family members passed away from that. It was unfortunate that the town, or whoever, did not inform them of the dangers of this, whereas now it’s a little different. You can go in and challenge that and say, ‘Hey, I want to know how harmful this is going to be.’”

A contamination warning sign in front of the Cordero Mine on April 17, 2021. The mine was built before stricter environmental regulations were put in place. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Evans, the president and CEO of Lithium Americas, notes that the mines permitted today must comply with much stricter environmental regulations, including water and air quality permitting.

“A lot of those mines were developed and permitted in a different time,” Evans said, when asked about the shuttered mercury mines. “A lot has changed since then from a regulatory standpoint, from a community right-to-know standpoint and just from a government standpoint in general.” 

The company says it remains focused on workforce development, and Evans wants economic benefits to go to tribal members. More than 40 tribal members have applied for jobs, he noted.

“We have ongoing dialogues with members of the tribe,” he said. “We’re committed to offer jobs to folks who want them and to offer the training required to be successful in those jobs as well.”

The Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation following a storm in an otherwise dry year on May 19, 2021. The reservation includes land in Nevada and Oregon. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Billy Bell, a tribal councilman, started getting involved with the project in February. He learned that the tribe had not submitted comments as part of the federal environmental review process. Bell is not sure why, but he noted that the comment process was going on during the pandemic.

“They’d pretty much had everything shut down,” Bell said after a community meeting in April. 

The environmental review, in certain areas, is vague, he said, and he has concerns about how federal land managers addressed cultural resources and water quality, considered alternatives and coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss endangered species.

Bell said he has heard both opposition and support from tribal members. 

“I would generally say that it’s fairly equal,” he said. 

But Bell, who voted to disengage with Lithium Americas, said it was not only the protests that swayed his opinion. He learned that the tribe had entered into the project agreement with the mining company in 2019, almost a year before the environmental review was completed.

“I had no idea what discussions they had or what they told them,” Bell said.

After the Trump administration approved the environmental review for the mine in January, two protesters, Will Falk and Max Wilbert, set up a camp at the mine site. When they first arrived at Thacker Pass, snow covered the ground. They have camped out there ever since — sometimes together, sometimes trading off, sometimes attracting visitors from across Nevada and the West.

Wilbert and Falk oppose the mine in the strongest terms. They believe the energy transition is built on a false premise. For them, Thacker Pass encapsulates the environmental impacts of green energy: Is disturbing land and wildlife to mine lithium for electric vehicles truly clean?

“I feel pretty terrible because the planet’s being killed,” Wilbert said, walking near the camp. “But I also feel like we’re further along now than we imagined we would be. I mean, when we started this campaign, there was a big element of just jumping off a cliff for us, because it was literally Will and I hopping in our cars and driving out here to camp on the side of a mountain.”

Environmental activists Will Falk, left, and Max Willbert, right, stand in front of the encampment on May 18, 2021. They have helped organize tribal members to oppose the mine. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Over the past several months, Falk and Wilbert have launched a social media campaign that has attracted media attention from across the country. Falk wrote regular op-eds about their opposition to the mine that were published in The Sierra Nevada Ally, a regional nonprofit outlet. 

On the ground, Falk and Wilbert worked with tribal elders, and they have helped to organize a coalition that has included organizers from the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, they are meeting with about a dozen tribal elders on the reservation. Elders and traditional members have formed a group known as the People of Red Mountain, Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu in Paiute. Falk, an attorney, has helped advise them.

Inelda Sam’s home, where the meeting takes place, is near the tribal offices on the reservation. Outside her home, wild horses are grazing by the road nearby. Sam sits at the end of a table next to Josephine Dick. The tribal elders said the protesters have provided important support.

“They’re supporting us,” Dick said. “So we’re supporting them too.”

Sam said that they are also getting support from Indigenous communities, long on the frontlines of mining, from across the region. The People of Red Mountain, Sam said, would like to see the tribal council do more to actively oppose the mining project. She is worried about the long-term impact that more mining will have on the community and the tribe’s traditional practices.

“Our future generations, our kids, grandkids,” she said. “That’s why we’re concerned.”

Tribal elders Inelda Sam, left, and Josephine Dick, right, talk about the spiritual significance of Thacker Pass and their opposition to the lithium mine on May 19, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lewey Sam, a tribal member, said he does a lot of hunting at Thacker Pass. He said the mine is going to disrupt wildlife in the Montana Mountains, home to deer, sage-grouse and rabbit. Sam said that hunting there was a part of how he — and many other tribal members — were raised.

“That’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way it’s going to be as long as I’m alive,” he said.

Over the past several months, their opposition has gained more momentum with coverage from national media outlets. Earlier this month, several tribal members traveled to Reno for a protest with more than a hundred supporters. Brian Thomas, chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, was one of several leaders who spoke at the protest. 

Thomas said federal land managers, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, should have consulted with his tribe, and he hopes to raise the issue with Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, who was sworn in earlier this year as the agency’s first Native American leader. 

“Believe me that we’re going to overcome this,” he said.

A dance after a peaceful protest against Thacker Pass in downtown Reno on June 12, 2021. The demonstration drew more than one-hundred supporters. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

An encampment, meetings and lawsuits

The organizers of the Protect Thacker Pass camp plan to continue protesting at the mine site, and they are asking their supporters to be ready to block construction equipment. Even though mine construction could be many months away, Lithium Americas had been planning to begin initial excavations and diggings, associated with cultural resources work, as early as June 23.

As part of litigation brought by environmental groups this year, the company agreed to delay ground disturbance until at least July 29th while the court hears arguments for an injunction.

But Falk, at the June 12 rally in Reno, was already looking beyond the delay: “We really need people to consider whether they can come up to camp, whether they can come up to Thacker Pass to put their bodies on the frontlines in case we have to stop any sort of construction equipment from digging up cultural resources, from destroying the land at Thacker Pass.” 

Evans said that the company respects the right to protest.

“They’re free to protest — as we move forward as well — but as long as it doesn’t imperil the safety of our workers, the community or anyone else involved in the project,” Evans said.

But Lithium Americas remains committed to bringing the project online, and the company is finishing up state environmental permitting and state permitting to use its water rights. 

“Our hope is that in the first half of next year, we’re moving forward,” Evans said.

The company is now proactively reaching out to the community. It recently hired professional facilitators from a firm in Colorado to interview local residents about their concerns. Cerri, the Humboldt County Commissioner, has pushed for negotiating a Good Neighbors Agreement, a binding legal contract that would help the community hold the mining company accountable.

Cerri said he was glad to see Lithium Americas more engaged. When the company first came to discuss its plans and the mine’s impacts, some people in the community felt talked down to.

“They were trying to tell us what was best for us,” Cerri said. “We didn’t need to hear that.

Ron Cerri, a Humboldt County Commissioner, checking on cattle at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountain Range on April 28, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“We had to push pretty hard to get them to start coming to some of these meetings,” Cerri said last month. “They still didn’t think we were serious. Then, of course, some of the efforts by the protesters out there have also benefited us in the respect that it’s gotten their attention, and I think they realize that they need the community’s support for this mine to be successful.”

Evans said the company wants to partner with the community and is willing to make upfront investments. He pointed to relocating the school as an example of that commitment.

“There were concerns about traffic and the school,” he noted. “We’ve already come forward [and] we’re interested in replacing that school and moving it, if that’s what’s needed.”

Even as the company makes more commitments, there is still distrust about the mine. 

Parents, county staff and educators gathered for a community meeting in mid-May to discuss plans to rebuild and relocate the school. Some worried that the school might not fix the larger issues associated with the mine — the concerns with more traffic and environmental impacts. 

After the meeting, Jeannie Mertens, who runs an auto care shop in Orovada, said that her big concern is traffic, and she would like to see the mining company pay for a new bypass road.

“You know what? It’s appreciated that they want to do anything at all,” Mertens said. “But they want to spend the money on the school because it is way cheaper than building a haul road.” 

It’s important, she said, for the community to reach a mutual agreement with the mine. 

“If this mine doesn’t go, the next one will, because there are claims all over there,” she said.

An ore sample from Thacker Pass at Lithium Americas’ process testing facility in Reno on May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Whether or not — and when — the mine is constructed could be decided by a federal judge. 

Two ongoing lawsuits are challenging the federal government’s approval of the mine, claiming that the fast-tracked environmental review did not fully consider the lithium mine’s impacts. The lawsuits, and ongoing state permitting, could delay mine construction and ultimate operations.  

In February, four groups — Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch and Wildlands Defense — filed suit over the federal environmental review.

John Hadder, the executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said that the organization is not opposed to all lithium mining. But he said regulators should not shortcut the permitting process, which is meant to consider a project’s impact on the environment and communities.

“If we’re going to move forward with a new era of increased mining, we have to recognize that there are communities that are going to be disproportionately affected by these policies, and that has to be kept in mind in how we move forward,” Hadder said. “What is a just transition?”

Ed Bartell stands in front of Pole Creek, one of the streams mentioned in his lawsuit challenging the federal approval of the mine, on April 18, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The second lawsuit was filed by Ed Bartell, an Orovada rancher. 

On a cool morning in late-April, Bartell opens a gate that leads into Pole Creek, one of the two streams that is mentioned in the lawsuit. The whole landscape changes around the water, and the sun is glistening off the stream. The lower section of Pole Creek is narrow, but Lahontan cutthroat trout, an endangered species and the Nevada state fish, has been observed in parts of the stream. In the past, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has monitored Pole Creek for trout.

The environmental review, relying on data from a mine consultant, argued that mine activities would have no effect on the species, a claim that environmental groups dispute in their lawsuit.

And some ranchers feel that federal regulators are applying a double-standard when it comes to protecting threatened wildlife, like the trout. They note that, for years, the same land managers have emphasized the need to protect habitat for sensitive species, including the sage-grouse.

Bartell points out several places where the environmental review misclassified resources in the area. He is also concerned that mining activity will affect the local hydrology, which is sensitive to significant changes. Bartell and another rancher are challenging the mine’s water permits. 

“It was really frustrating how quickly it got rushed,” Bartell said of the mine permitting. 

Bartell understands the demand for lithium, but he said the Thacker Pass mine presents too many concerns. He is worried about the potential for pollution and the disturbances to wildlife. 

“Obviously we need lithium mining, but it needs to be done in a sustainable way,” he said.

Nevada Independent photographer David Calvert contributed to this report. 

Update: An earlier version of this story identified Glenn Miller as serving on Great Basin Resource Watch's board of directors. This story was updated on June 21, 2021 at 9:01 a.m. to indicate that Miller, a founder of the group, resigned earlier this month.

The Protect Thacker Pass encampment at sunset on April 17, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak announces COVID-19 vaccine incentive program with $1 million grand prize

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on Thursday a new state-run incentive program that will award some $5 million in prizes —  including a $1 million grand prize — to Nevada residents who get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The announcement of the program, called “Vax Nevada Days,” comes as the state lags behind President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4 — as of June 16, the state has at least partially vaccinated 59.4 percent of the adult population, a mark that ranks 33rd among the 50 states. 

“We want to avoid ever going through what we went through COVID last year,” Sisolak said. “That's why today I want to provide Nevadans with an exciting update on one more way we're planning to encourage all Nevadans to get their vaccine, in addition to thanking those who've already gotten their shots.”

Sisolak unveiled the program at a kickoff press conference at Allegiant Stadium, where a vaccine clinic and stadium tours were simultaneously being held. Though winners will be announced each Thursday from July 8-Aug. 26, those who have already been vaccinated will be automatically entered in the drawings once their vaccinator has submitted that information to the state. 

Governor Steve Sisolak speaks during a press conference inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Every Nevadan who is at least 12 years old and receives at least a first dose will be automatically entered to win one of nearly 2,000 prizes.

Other incentives up for grabs for people 18 and older include 149 cash prizes ranging from $1,000 to $250,000 each. Specifically, 100 people will win $1,000 each, 32 will win $25,000, 11 will win $50,000, two will win $100,000, three will win $250,000 and one person will win the $1 million grand prize. Teens between the ages of 12 and 17 are eligible for 135 different college savings plan awards valued from $5,000 to $50,000.

People of all ages are eligible to win one of 500 Nevada state park annual passes or one of 1,250 state fishing licenses.

All $5 million worth of prizes will come from federal COVID-19 relief funds, and they will be distributed through Immunize Nevada. Sisolak said he expects winners to first be called as prizes are drawn, though the administration of the program will be fully carried out by Immunize Nevada.

Sisolak was also joined at the event by Scott Gunn, a senior vice president at the gaming company IGT Global Solutions Corporation. Gunn explained that other states are able to administer COVID-19 incentives through their state lotteries. Because Nevada does not have a state lottery, IGT will be helping pick winners through a certified random number generator, which is the process used by lotteries in other states. Gunn also noted that IGT will not have access to anyone’s personally identifiable information throughout the process.

Sisolak explained that the drawings are legal in the state because Nevadans are being entered into a raffle system rather than a lottery that someone would have to pay to enter.

“We got an opinion from my counsel, from the attorney general’s counsel, from the Gaming Control Board's counsel that this is something that we're allowed to do,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, a variety of other states have announced incentives meant to boost vaccination rates, after the number of doses being administered daily across the country significantly declined in late April and May. Some states have announced cash prizes, such as Ohio, which started the “Vax-a-Million” campaign to boost vaccination numbers by giving out five $1 million prizes to vaccinated adults. 

Governor Steve Sisolak answers questions during a press conference inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Other states have offered different, non-cash prizes, such as free tickets to a Six Flags theme park, which Illinois offered to some of its vaccinated residents.

Update: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on June 17, 2021 to include more information about the incentive program.

Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

Secretary Granholm on Nevada’s role in the energy transition, lithium mining, rooftop solar

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

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Last Thursday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm sat down for a roundtable with Gov. Steve Sisolak, Rep. Steven Horsford and other Nevada leaders. 

The roundtable was part of Granholm’s multi-state tour stumping for the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan and its efforts to speed up the energy transition. 

And if there was a theme for the day, it was the economy and jobs. 

Not long before the roundtable, Sisolak signed a massive energy infrastructure bill, SB448, at IBEW Local 357. The bill, dropped in the final weeks of the legislative session, focuses on NV Energy’s build-out of its Greenlink transmission line and the deployment of electric vehicles. 

Granholm touted the bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), who participated in the roundtable with other renewable advocates. NV Energy CEO Doug Cannon was also there. 

Other states Granholm has visited recently (Texas and West Virginia) have played central roles in producing fossil fuels: oil, gas and coal. But Nevada is in a different position. In Nevada, the fossil fuel industry is small compared to other states, where it has historically been a dominant and powerful political player. 

In Granholm’s remarks, she recognized what Nevada’s economic development planners have said for years: When it comes to energy, the opportunity for Nevada is not in fossil fuels, but as an exporter of renewable energy across the West and a key player in the battery supply chain.

From Granholm’s perspective, Nevada has everything “soup to nuts.” She pointed to the ample land for solar projects, the Tesla Gigafactory, geothermal capacity and deposits for critical minerals. 

“When I say ‘soup to nuts,’ Granholm said during an interview with The Nevada Independent on Friday, “that's really referring to the full supply chain of clean energy products that we should be building and manufacturing in this country, as well as installing and exporting.”

But doing that won’t necessarily be easy. New development in Nevada, from large-scale solar projects to mining, has, at times, faced opposition from Indigenous communities, conservation groups and local residents concerned with how projects could harm ecosystems and change the landscape.

In a brief interview Friday, as Granholm prepared to tour the Townsite solar project in Boulder City, she discussed some of the opportunities and challenges facing Nevada amid the push to place more renewables on public land and secure a domestic supply chain for the materials needed to produce electric cars.

On the need for domestic solar-panel production: Granholm stressed the importance of manufacturing solar panels in the United States, saying that “other countries have cornered the market on some of this, and we need to get it back.” She specifically singled out China, noting that President Biden had just delivered remarks concerning China’s use of forced labor.

“Nevada could be manufacturing solar panels, as well as installing them,” she said.

Land for utility-scale solar projects: Early into the interview, Granholm said that Nevada’s “comparative advantage is this massive amount of land that could be used to generate solar.” 

Nevada is one of the least densely populated states, and about 85 percent of the state’s land is managed by federal agencies, from the Department of the Defense (military bases) to the U.S. Forest Service (national forests). Most of the utility-scale solar would likely be sited on land managed by the Department of Interior, specifically the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

The bureau oversees about 65 percent of Nevada’s land — and they are often charged with permitting energy projects (solar, geothermal, wind, etc.). But the bureau must balance multiple (and often conflicting) activities: conservation, recreation, grazing, mining, etc.

Even with plans to prioritize energy development in low-impact areas, energy developers are still eyeing projects in sensitive areas. In Southern Nevada, projects have run into opposition over their impacts on imperiled species, such as the Mojave desert tortoise, recreation activities and sacred sites for Indigenous communities.

As a result, many environmental groups have called for better federal and state planning to direct projects into areas with fewer impacts. We asked Granholm about this and how she is working with the Department of Interior.

“I’m really enthusiastic because Secretary [Deb] Haaland and the president are really prioritizing renewable energy on public lands, and that’s onshore and offshore,” Granholm said. 

“Our team is actively working with her team to figure out how to do that,” she added. “What are the most optimal places we should be prioritizing? How do you streamline the permitting without jeopardizing the reviews that need to happen to ensure that you are protecting the resources?”

Granholm said lithium mining should have the support of Indigenous and local communities: The Energy Secretary’s visit came just days after the Biden administration released a report looking into the supply chain for electric vehicle batteries and other products needed to address climate change.

The report underscores the need for securing critical minerals both domestically and from allies. But as new mines are proposed in Nevada and across the American West, Indigenous leaders and conservation groups have raised serious concerns about how certain projects to extract key minerals, including copper and lithium, would irreparably harm the environment. 

When thinking about where to permit mines, Granholm stressed the need for community buy-in.

“The view of the administration is that mining that is done here — in the U.S. — must be done responsibly, sustainably, and with the buy-in of local and indigenous groups,” she said. 

Granholm said Indigenous communities who have been on the land for generations “have to be at the table” during mine planning. She said that companies could engage in partnerships, such as community development agreements, to direct benefits to Indigenous and local communities.

Granholm on the role of rooftop solar: NV Energy’s CEO was at the roundtable with Granholm on Thursday, and the Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility is playing a driving role in transitioning the state’s power sector away from fossil fuels. 

But what about renewable energy infrastructure that is not owned directly by the utility?

We asked Granholm about “distributed energy resources,” a very technical (and dry) phrase for electric infrastructure that is installed on-site (think rooftop solar), rather than by the utility. 

She said utility-scale and distributed generation are both “incredibly important pieces of the pie.”

Granholm noted that although the roundtable focused on NV Energy’s Greenlink transmission line (a utility-scale project), “there’s also a role for distributed transmission too — microgrids to help with resiliency — and certainly in more remote areas that are powered by solar.” 


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

THE COLORADO RIVER

‘An earthquake in people’s sense of urgency:’ That’s a quote from The Arizona Republic’s piece about Lake Mead declining to its lowest level since the 1930s. “The lake's rapid decline has been outpacing projections from just a few months ago,” reporter Ian James wrote. 

The real-world effects of Lake Mead’s low elevation: Review-Journal reporter Blake Apgar writes that the Lake Mead boat launch area closed on Friday last week. 

Saving the Salton Sea: The Desert Sun’s Mark Olalde published an excellent, in-depth story on the proposals to fix the issues in the Salton Sea by importing water from the Sea of Cortez. 

DROUGHT HITS THE WEST

Wildlife managers drop water for bighorn sheep: Review-Journal science reporting fellow Stephanie Castillo writes about the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s efforts to replenish water sources for bighorn sheep amid severe drought conditions. “We have had to haul water on an emergency basis, but not anywhere near approaching this magnitude, this scale of severity,” said one wildlife biologist for the agency. 

Life on the edge in the Amargosa River Basin: The Amargosa River is a unique landscape that has carved out a biodiversity hotspot. But the climate change and groundwater overuse are adding new stresses to the area, as National Geographic’s Stefan Lovgren reports. 

These visuals, compiled by the New York Times, show just how bad the drought is. 

LITHIUM SUPPLY CHAIN 

Battery recycling firm is expanding: The Reno Gazette Journal’s Jason Hidalgo writes about Redwood Materials, a Nevada-based battery recycling firm that was started by a former Tesla executive. 

A Panasonic mining partnership: Neolith Energy, a venture from oil services company Schlumberger, is partnering with Panasonic on a lithium extraction project near Tonopah. 

Thacker Pass mine work delayed, via Reuters’ Ernest Scheyder. And over the weekend, more than a hundred demonstrators, including many Indigenous leaders and advocates, gathered in Reno to protest the mine (photos from the Reno Gazette Journal).

WATER AND LAND

Biden to reverse Trump’s Clean Water Act rollback: President Joe Biden’s EPA is planning to restore certain federal protections for streams and wetlands after the Trump administration weakened protections associated with the Clean Water Act, the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman reports.

Lawmakers want wild horse investigation, halt on adoptions, the Review-Journal’s Gary Martin reports.

Why does snow turn pink? The answer has to do with microalgae. But there is also an important feedback loop involving climate change — with implications for snowmelt. KUNR’s Noah Glick has more. 

Coming up: The Clark County Lands Bill is getting a hearing in Congress. 

Culinary Union workers celebrate the passage of ‘Right to Return’ bill with Sisolak

Gov. Steve Sisolak joined members of the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas on Tuesday to celebrate the passage of the much-debated SB386 – referred to as the “Right to Return” bill – that guarantees the rights of laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers to return to their previous jobs. 

Sisolak was met with applause and cheers after he was introduced by D. Taylor, president of the labor organization’s parent union, UNITE HERE. The event came after Sisolak signed the bill last week with little fanfare. 

“The day I decided that we had to close down the Strip … I said ‘I’m going to put a lot of people out of work.’ That was hard. That was really hard. 98 percent of the Culinary members were unemployed after we did that. We only brought back 50 percent of them thus far,” Sisolak told the workers who grew quiet in the crowded union hall near downtown. 

Sisolak credited the bill’s passage to the union members who relentlessly lobbied legislators in Carson City and fought to get the measure passed in May. However, he said there was still work to be done as long as there was a single worker there who did not yet have a job back. 

Mario Sandoval, 56, is a Las Vegas resident and member of the Culinary Union who was a food server at Binion’s steakhouse for 36 years before he was laid off in March 2020. He is planning to retire in seven years and said he wants to do so with “dignity.” 

For 13 months, Sandoval was unemployed. He spoke to lawmakers on the congressional Ways and Means Committee, at the Legislature and even to Vice President Kamala Harris when she came to visit Las Vegas in March. 

“Anybody that would give me an ear, I would chew it off,” Sandoval joked. 

Sandoval said he feels great that the bill passed, but that he is still not back to work because his company told him that they have until July 1, when the law goes into effect, to rehire him.

Norma Flores worked as a server at the Fiesta Henderson Hotel and Casino for 20 years before it was shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. Like Sandoval, she knocked on doors and lobbied Nevada legislators to support SB386.

She described the financial and mental toll the pandemic took on her and other workers.

“We feel like we don’t have anything,” she said. ”We lost everything with the pandemic, and we know we have to [go] back to work, but we don’t know when. We go to sleep and we don’t know if … we’ll have [a] check for unemployment [tomorrow]. We don’t want to depend [on] that check. We want to work.”

Luceanne Taufa worked as a cashier at Fiesta Henderson for 17 years before she was laid off in March. After having multiple family members pass away and seeing others lose their livelihoods during the pandemic, she said she felt as if her heart was broken. 

Both Flores and Taufa said the passage of the Right to Return bill was a major victory for workers. Taufa described herself as being “in heaven” after she had learned that the measure passed. She said that though she only has a few years of work left, she also fought to give other people hope for the future. 

The measure was subject to lengthy negotiations before the union and other major players in the casino industry arrived at a compromise.

“This wasn’t about an argument about a bill … This was about people. This was about people that worked for a living – hard-working people that have built this city. They fueled this tourism economy. Without you, nobody’s coming to Las Vegas,” Sisolak told the workers. “I am committed to doing everything within my power to make sure we get every person back to work because that’s what it’s about.”

Nevada Indian Country celebrates wins at the Legislature, including greater access to higher education for students

Tribal leaders and advocates are eyeing their communities’ futures with more hope after priority bills for Native leaders made it across the legislative finish line last week. 

“I say unequivocally there’s never been a better time to be Indigenous and live in the state of Nevada,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, during an event last week at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, where Gov. Steve Sisolak signed three bills affecting Nevada tribes  — AB262, AB88 and AB270 — into law. 

Stacey Montooth, Executive Director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission speaks during a bill signing ceremony with the Governor at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The legislation prioritized by Native leaders that cleared the lawmaking session include measures that waive fees at Nevada colleges and universities for Native students; prohibit racially discriminatory language or imagery in schools; and provide environmental protection for sacred sites, among others. 

Marla McDade Williams, an enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone and lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said legislation crafted with input from Native community members has been steadily increasing over the last few years in the Legislature, a trend that continued this spring.

“As long as people just continue to keep issues at the forefront, there's always going to be a legislator who is willing to bring those issues forward and see how we can craft a solution that is beneficial for the Native American community and tribes,” she said. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) said the inclusive legislation fosters unity amid an era of reckoning with historical injustices. 

“This is, I think, a groundbreaking legislative session for advancing the rights and issues of Indigenous people and fostering inclusion among all of us, because while we come from many different communities, we're also all one community and all Nevadans,” he said during the bill-signing event. 

Governor Steve Sisolak during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City after signing bills AB88, 262 and 270 on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s a look at the bills that passed during the session, all of which have also been signed into law by Sisolak, that affect Nevada tribes:

AB262: Fee waiver for Native students 

One of the top priorities this session for Native leaders and advocates, AB262 waives registration, laboratory and other mandatory fees at Nevada System of Higher Education institutions for Native people who are members of federally recognized tribes in Nevada or descendants of enrolled tribal members. With in-state tuition, waiving fees at universities and colleges significantly reduces the financial burden to attend school for students.

The law goes into effect on July 1. 

At the signing event, Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadens” the futures of 70,000 Native Americans in the state. 

“I use that large number, not to scare NSHE (Nevada System of Higher Education), but because in Indian Country, when one of us earns a degree, our entire family earns a degree,” she said. 

Tribal leaders, such as Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez, who advocated for the bill during the session said the increased access to education will help lift tribes and their community members out of disproportionate poverty rates. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Reno), who sponsored the bill, told The Nevada Independent that her hope is that it will ultimately benefit those who live on tribal lands. 

“The goal is really for students to be able to attend school and then come back hopefully to the community so that way we can get Native American doctors on the Native lands, we can get an attorney on Native American land — those things make a difference,” she said. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Cheryl Simmons, an enrolled member of the Washoe Tribe, said she’s excited for the measure to be implemented in time for her classes to start in the fall. As a single mother of two children who is also helping raise her grandchild, she said the fees pose a barrier to people such as herself who want to work toward an associates or bachelor’s degree. 

“I’d like to see that change in our school system because it’s penalizing [students] to learn more,” she said, adding that she’s working toward her fifth associates degree in criminal justice at Western Nevada College. She has other degrees in general studies, art and business management. 

Besides being an enrolled Nevada tribal member or descendant of one, students also must be eligible for enrollment in a university or college, be a Nevada resident for a year or more, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to be eligible for the fee waiver. 

The bill also requires the Board of Regents to submit a report to the Legislative Counsel Bureau regarding the number of students eligible and the total funding available for the waived fees by Sept. 1, 2022, in order to provide accurate data for future legislative bodies.

The original version of the bill included providing in-state tuition at colleges and universities for members of tribes outside of Nevada, which was amended out of the final version. 

In a fiscal note, the Nevada System of Higher Education stated it could not determine the financial impact of the bill as it depends on how many students will take the opportunity to use it. 

The Assembly approved the bill nearly unanimously, with Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) as the lone lawmaker who voted against it, and the Senate unanimously approved it on the final day of the session. 

AB88: Bans offensive, racially discriminatory imagery in Nevada schools 

Sponsored by Watts, the measure bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools. 

The legislation came about during a time of reckoning across the country, with Native people calling for sports teams, businesses and schools to remove offensive names. Earlier this year, UNLV retired its Hey Reb! mascot after taking its statue down last June in response to a history tied to confederate symbolism and, last year, the Squaw Valley Ski Resort announced it would drop “squaw” from its name after years of protest from the Washoe Tribe. On the national stage, the Washington professional football team announced a name change in January, dropping the “Redskins” title after 90 years. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Watts said the goal of the measure is to continue promoting awareness about the injustices of the past in order to move forward. 

“That's really what Assembly Bill 88 tries to do is help educate people about some of the racially discriminatory aspects of our history, from our school mascots, to the names that we've given to places, places that were named first by Indigenous peoples, and then renamed when settlers arrived, and also addressing the issue of sundowner sirens,” he said during the bill-signing event. “I believe that by confronting these issues, and working together to address them, we can all move forward together and have a brighter future for the state.”

Nevada schools may still use language, imagery or mascots in connection with tribes as long as they have consent from local tribal leaders to do so. For example, the Elko band of the Te-Moak Tribe allowed the Elko High School Indians mascot to remain the same. 

Signs and flags of the Elko Indians at the Elko High School in Elko, Nevada. (Famartin / Creative Commons)

The bill also prohibits Nevada counties, cities and unincorporated towns from sounding sirens, bells or alarms historically used to alert people of color to leave town at a certain hour, known as a “sundown ordinance.” The bill specifically applies to Minden in Douglas County, which repealed the sundown ordinance in 1974 but continues to sound the siren at 6 p.m. each day. Tribal leaders have asked for years that the siren be removed, or at least changed to a different hour of the day.

Serrell Smokey, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, said the measure gives the tribe a better “foothold” in its fight against the siren, which is triggering for some tribal elders who lived through the era of sundown ordinances. 

“We’ve seen this even in some elders nowadays, if you ask them about the siren, they'll say, ‘Don't mess with that, don't talk about it,’” Smokey said. “That's historical trauma. They're still scared about it and they don't want to address it. Us younger generations have more fight in us and we know we need to capitalize on taking action with social injustices that have been going on throughout the world.” 

The bill also asks that the State Board on Geographic Names recommend name changes for geographic features of places in the state that have racially discriminatory language or imagery. The board includes two Native representatives. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill 36-6 and 12-8, respectively, with some Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law during the event on June 4. 

AB270: Stewart Indian School preservation

Sponsored by Assemblyman Philip O’Neill (R-Carson City), the measure allows the museum director of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum designate certain buildings and grounds of the former boarding school for Native children for special events and authorizes the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages at such events. 

The Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The bill also earmarks any funds made through the special events to be paid into the State Treasury for credit to the Nevada Indian Commission Gift Fund. Those funds must be used by the commission to maintain and preserve operations and cultural integrity of the Stewart Indian School. 

During the bill-signing event in Carson City, O’Neill said the measure will help ensure the museum can continue to educate the public on the harsh history of the boarding school. The measure also includes preservation efforts for the State Prison. 

“[The Stewart Indian School and the State Prison] are long standing in our Nevada history, both good and bad. And we need to teach that, have that available, so our future generations do not repeat. And that's the strongest part of all of our bills today is that we prepare our future generations to be better than we are,” he said. 

Assemblyman P.K. O'Neill attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Stewart Indian School was one of hundreds of federal boarding schools in the United States that housed Native children, often kidnapped from their families and forced to attend, in order to assimilate them into white culture. Their traditional long hair was cut short and their languages and spiritual practices were forbidden. It reopened last year, after receiving funding from the state, as a museum to share the story of what happened there, as told by school alumni, some of whom are still living in the state. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously, and Sisolak signed it into law during the event on June 4. 

AB261: Expand historical contributions of diverse groups in education 

Sponsored by Anderson, the measure requires that education curriculum used throughout the state promote greater inclusion and accurately reflect societal contributions made by various demographic groups.  

The bill requires the board of trustees of each school district and the governing body of charter schools ensure educational material includes contributions to science, arts and the humanities made by Native Americans and tribes, people of marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity, people with disabilities, people from African American, Basque, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds and more. 

The bill addresses frustrations expressed by Native leaders and educators that education generally focuses on Native people as historical figures and fails to acknowledge the historical contributions and modern day presence of Native people and tribes in Nevada. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill in 26-16 and 12-9 votes, respectively, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and Sisolak signed the bill into law in May. 

AB321: Expanded voting measure becomes law 

Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), the bill sets in stone the expanded voting measures implemented last year in response to the pandemic. Native leaders and advocates have widely supported the measure as it includes extended deadlines for tribes to request polling locations and so-called “ballot harvesting,” which allows people to submit ballots for non-family members.

McDade Williams, Te-Moak tribe member and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony lobbyist, said the law improves access to voting for tribes. 

“Being able to recognize that tribal communities are isolated and figuring out ways to help them participate in the state selection process — these are all good things for tribes,” she said. 

A Native voter wears a "voting is sacred" T-shirt at a polling location for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Nevada Native Vote Project.

The next step: Educating Native voters about how to access the ballot in time for the midterm election season next year, she said. 

“Hopefully those initiatives can really bear some fruit over the next 12 months, getting some resources at the tribal level to start training voters on how to access the process and how to understand candidates and what to look for in candidates,” McDade Williams said. 

The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, and Sisolak signed it into law on June 2. 

AB103: Protecting Indian burial sites in Nevada 

A follow-up to legislation approved in 2017, the bill clears up ambiguities in the law regarding excavation of Indian burial sites across Nevada. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas), the measure clarifies that entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, are exempt from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the activity will not affect a known burial site. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law following the end of the session in May. 

During a hearing for the bill in March, Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program, said the current law does not protect Native items or objects found across Nevada and is something Native people would like to change in the future. 

AB171: State protection for “swamp cedars” 

The measure sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee grants state protection to Rocky Mountain juniper trees, known as “swamp cedars,” outside of Ely in Spring Valley. Native elders and tribal leaders widely supported the measure because the site where the swamp cedars are found, known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone, is sacred to Indigenous people. 

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13. It later passed the Senate in a 13-8 vote, with Republicans voting against it, except for Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), who crossed the aisle to approve the measure despite raising concerns about historical inaccuracies regarding massacres of Indigenous peoples cited in the bill. Sisolak signed the bill before the session ended in late May. 

AJR4: Federal protection for “swamp cedars”  

Further expanding on AB171, the resolution, also sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, urges Congress and the Biden administration grant protections to  swamp cedars and designate the area as a national historic monument or expand the Great Basin National Park to include Spring Valley.

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and was later unanimously approved by the Senate. 

AJR3: Naming Avi Kwa Ame a national monument 

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Cecelia González (D-Las Vegas), the resolution heads to Congress to establish Spirit Mountain, known as Avi Kwa Ame in the native Mojave language, as a national monument. Avi Kwa Ame is a spiritual center for several tribes spanning across Nevada, California and Arizona, including the Fort Mojave Tribe. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill largely along party lines, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. 

Adding Native representatives to state groups: 

AB72: State Board on Geographic Names 

The measure adds another spot for a Native representative from the Nevada Indian Commission on the State Board on Geographic Names. The board already included a spot for a member from the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and includes representatives from the state Bureau of Mines and Geology, UNR, UNLV, the U.S. Forest Service and more. 

The Assembly and Senate unanimously approved the bill and Sisolak signed it into law on May 21. 

AB52: Land Use Planning Advisory Council 

Sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources committee, the bill adds a voting member appointed by the Nevada Indian Commission to the Land Use Planning Advisory Council. The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law last week.

AB54: Advisory Traffic Safety Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure committee, the bill creates the Advisory Traffic Safety Committee, which will be tasked with reviewing, studying and making recommendations regarding best practices for reducing traffic deaths and injuries. As part of the committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council. 

The Assembly approved the bill 36-4 and the Senate 12-9, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law on May 21. 

AB95: Legislative Public Lands Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council and appointed by the Legislature to the Legislative Public Lands Committee. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law on May 27. 

Sisolak rejects four bills including legislative ethics commissions and housing discrimination changes

Gov. Steve Sisolak said late Friday he vetoed four bills passed during the recently concluded Legislature, including measures that would have created legislative ethics commissions, amended Nevada’s housing discrimination laws, revised the state’s tourism improvement districts and established a dental oversight committee.

He wrote four letters to Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske informing her of his decision to veto the bills.

The bills will be returned to their house of origin in the 2023 Legislature where lawmakers could override any of the vetoes by a two-thirds vote.

The bills Sisolak rejected were:

Assembly Bill 65, which passed by split votes in both the Assembly and Senate, made changes to provisions overseeing ethics in government; however, an amendment that was adopted would have created new legislative ethics commissions for each house. That amendment, Sisolak said, changed his view of the bill.

“I want to be very clear that I support the majority of the sections of this bill,” the governor said in the letter. However, the amendment converted the bill “from a mostly housekeeping measure into a significant policy change.”

The separate commissions that would have investigated and adjudicated complaints against lawmakers and staffers weren’t needed, Sisolak surmised. He said the Nevada Ethics Commission already administers those matters.

“Having a single body handle these issues ensures uniformity and fairness,” Sisolak said. He noted that separate legislative ethics commissions were abolished in 1985 and consolidated into the current Nevada Ethics Commission structure.

Senate Bill 254, which passed by split votes in both the Assembly and Senate, would have amended the state’s housing discrimination laws to reflect federal regulations. The change would have allowed the Nevada Equal Rights Commission to investigate and enforce fair housing rights under federal law. The bill also limited the use of criminal background checks and criminal history as a reason for a landlord to refuse an applicant.

Sisolak said the changes were “good intentioned,” but could ultimately deprive Nevada residents of “superior, cost-free fair house enforcement” available through federal government agencies. He said the bill also imposed restrictions on a landlord’s ability to choose who rents their property. 

“Although I understand the noble purposes behind SB254, the bill is drafted in such a way that it could impose substantial liability on individual landlords and yet not achieve one of its major goals,” Sisolak said.

Assembly Bill 368, which was unanimously passed in both houses, would have revised how projects would be financed within a tourism improvement district. The bill required additional reporting on taxes collected from businesses.

Sisolak said the bill “is contrary to the goals of restarting our economy, improving our infrastructure, and creating jobs.” The governor said he didn’t want to remove “any of the tools local governments can use to encourage and generate economic development.”

Senate Bill 391, which was unanimously approved in the Senate but passed by a split vote in the Assembly, would have established a committee to work with the State Dental Officer governing teledentistry for advising dentists administering medical care during an emergency.

The bill also would have exempted the committee from adhering to Nevada’s Open Meeting Law when there was an emergency or disaster, which Sisolak “strongly” opposed.

“I support the provisions of the bill that would allow for use of teledentistry to bring dental care to more Nevadans, especially in the rural areas,” Sisolak said. “Unfortunately, however, I cannot support this bill because of the provisions that create a new committee governing the practice of dentistry during an emergency.”

Sisolak celebrates bills that expand voting access during ceremonial signing

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Friday held a ceremonial signing of a handful of bills designed to make casting ballots easier in Nevada, marking a deviation from other states where lawmakers have passed more restrictive voting laws.

The bill-signing ceremony at the East Las Vegas Community Center kicked off the last day for the governor to pen his name on bills passed during the 81st Legislature. The five bills, a couple of which he had already signed, are all election-related:

  • AB121 allows people with disabilities to vote using an electronic system created for uniformed military members and other voters living overseas.
  • AB321 permanently expands mail-in voting while letting voters opt out of receiving a mail ballot, and it also gives Indian reservations or colonies more time to request the establishment of a polling place within its boundaries.
  • AB422 implements a top-down voter registration system, moving away from the existing setup that involves 17 county clerks maintaining their own systems and transmitting voter registration information to the secretary of state’s office.
  • AB432 expands automatic voter registration to other state or tribal agencies, such as those designated by the Department of Health and Human Services that receive Medicaid applications and the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange. 
  • AB126 moves the state to a presidential primary system, ending the use of the caucus.

Sisolak noted that lawmakers in other states have introduced 389 bills that would restrict voting rights, and 20 have been signed into law. He called it an “assault on one of the key tenets of our democracy — the right to vote.”

“But today, in the great state of Nevada, we are so proud that we are sending a strong message that the Silver State is not only bucking the national trend of infringing on voter rights — rather, we’re doing everything we can to expand access to the poll while ensuring our elections are secure and fair,” Sisolak added.

The bill-signings come roughly seven months after a contentious election season, during which Nevada’s Republican secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, received an avalanche of threats and harassment after unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud following former President Donald Trump’s loss. Because of the pandemic, Nevada lawmakers expanded mail-in voting for the 2020 presidential election.

Gov. Steve Sisolak and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson celebrate the signing of election-related bills at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Friday, June 11, 2021. (Mikayla Whitmore/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak lauded AB321 for permanently enshrining mail-in voting in the Silver State, which he said gives voters more options. He also commended Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) for being a “tenacious fighter” when it comes to preserving and expanding voting rights.

Frierson emphasized that AB321 doesn’t eliminate any voting options — people can vote by mail, deposit their ballots in drop-off boxes or vote in person.

“These are all options and individual liberties that Nevadans have come to enjoy,” he said.

The governor and state lawmakers also celebrated the state’s conversion to a presidential primary, which could place Nevada ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa to become the first nominating state in the nation. But that’s subject to approval from the Democratic National Committee. AB126, which moves Nevada away from a caucus, establishes that presidential primary elections would occur on the first Tuesday in February of presidential election years.

Sisolak touted Nevada’s diverse population as a reason for why it should lead the primary process, saying it “undoubtedly” represents the composition of the country.

The governor has spent the week in Las Vegas, attending a variety of bill-signing ceremonies to usher new measures into law. The legislative session ended at midnight on Memorial Day.

Sisolak signs bill making Nevada the second state to adopt a public health insurance option

Nevada became the second state in the nation to enact a state-managed public health insurance option on Wednesday, with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature transforming a bill that hadn’t even been made public until six weeks ago into law.

Though Sisolak voiced his intent to sign the bill last week, his signature formally ends a more than four-year-long quest to establish a public option in Nevada, though, in many ways, work on the public option is just beginning. Under the new law, Nevada’s public option plan won’t be available for purchase until 2026, giving state officials time to conduct an actuarial study of the proposal to determine whether it will accomplish proponents’ goals of increasing health care access and affordability and at what cost. It also provides time for state officials to transform the still relatively broad-strokes concept into a workable policy and return to the Legislature in 2023 with any changes that may need to be made to the law.

“I'm always looking for ways to expand health care opportunities in Nevada for Nevadans, and that's what this legislation does,” Sisolak said during a bill-signing ceremony in Las Vegas. “By leveraging the state's existing health care infrastructure and reducing costs, it is my hope that Nevadans will have improved access to comprehensive insurance.”

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who’s expecting her first child this summer and sponsored SB420, nodded to the effect it could have on the state’s youngest residents.

"This bill will help to open up some more doors in critical investments in prenatal and maternal care and Medicaid for Nevada moms and babies right here in our Silver State,” she said Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) smiles after Gov. Steve Sisolak signed SB420 in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Heather Korbulic, who as head of the state’s health insurance exchange will have a key role in the development of the public option, said in a statement that she plans to “bring all stakeholders together to outline the actuarial study and conduct a meaningful analysis of the public option as it relates to every aspect of health care throughout the state.”

“In the meantime I'm going to continue to focus on getting Nevadans connected to Nevada Health Link where we have an open enrollment period that runs through August 15th and — thanks to the Biden administration — almost everyone eligible is getting financial assistance,” she said, in a nod to the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of exchange subsidies.

Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview last week said the public option isn’t “a single solution” but “does definitely enhance the opportunity for individuals to gain access to health care.”

“I think that as an option for coverage, it definitely enhances that overall framework,” Whitley said. 

Under the new law, insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population will also be required to bid to offer a public option plan, with ultimate decision-making authority left to the state to decide how many plans to approve. The plans would resemble existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange, though the legislation would require the public option plan or plans to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the goal of reducing average premium costs of the plans by 15 percent over four years.

The public option concept first surfaced during the 2017 legislative session, when former Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle (D-Sparks), introduced a bill to allow Nevadans to buy into the state’s Medicaid program, nicknamed Medicaid-for-all. While an amended version of that proposal, instead establishing a Medicaid-like plan, cleared the Legislature, former Gov. Brian Sandoval ultimately vetoed it. 

Sandoval, a health care advocate who earned plaudits from Democrats for being the first Republican governor in the nation to opt into Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and fought to protect the federal health care law in 2017, said at the time of his veto that the public option proposal was “moving too soon, without factual foundation or adequate understanding of the possible consequences.”

Sprinkle proposed a narrower version of his vetoed bill during the 2019 legislative session, nicknamed Medicaid-for-some, that failed to advance after he resigned from the Legislature facing allegations of sexual harassment. Cannizzaro revived the proposal in the waning days of that session in the form of an interim study of yet another public option proposal — this time to allow Nevadans to buy into the state Public Employees’ Benefits Program rather than Medicaid.

That study, which was carried out by the health policy firm Manatt Health, was released with little fanfare in January as lawmakers geared up for the legislative session during some of the pandemic’s darkest days. 

The study — which looked at both a PEBP buy-in proposal and a state-sponsored qualified health plan proposal — found that a 10 percent reduction in insurance plan premiums would translate to between zero and 1,500 uninsured individuals gaining coverage in the first year of the plan’s existence, while a 20 percent reduction would reduce the state’s uninsured population between 300 and 4,800 people. There are about 350,000 uninsured Nevadans.

“These enrollment figures highlight that a 10 percent or 20 percent reduction in premiums may not be enough to substantially encourage the currently uninsured to enroll in coverage for the first time,” the study concluded.

For the next couple of months, the public option remained in the background as lawmakers tackled other health care policies. But the public option resurfaced in mid-April when Cannizzaro confirmed she was working on legislation behind the scenes and started meeting with health care industry representatives to present the concept.

In late April, the proposal was introduced as SB420, this time with the goal of leveraging the state’s purchasing power with Medicaid managed care contracts with insurers to compel insurance companies to provide affordable public option plans, too. Unlike some previous iterations of the proposal, the plan would not be offered by a public insurer — such as Medicaid or PEBP — but by private insurers.

Proponents, including progressive groups like Battle Born Progress, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, threw their weight behind the bill, arguing that the proposal would make health care more affordable and accessible. Opponents, including the Nevada Hospital Association, the Nevada State Medical Association and the Nevada Association of Health Plans, countered that it would do just the opposite, going so far as to destabilize Nevada’s already-fragile health care system.

Specifically, health care providers argued that a provision in the bill setting the floor for rates for the public option plans at Medicare rates — which providers say are better than Medicaid rates but not as good as those paid by private insurance plans — would act as an effective cap. They also pushed back on a section of the bill requiring doctors who contract with Medicaid, the Public Employees Benefits Program and workers’ compensation to participate in at least one public option plan.

Instead, opponents of the bill argued that the state should focus on targeting people who are uninsured but either eligible for Medicaid or for subsidies through the state’s health insurance exchange. Together, those two groups represent more than half of uninsured Nevadans. To that end, they proposed an amendment in the final days of the session to scale back the bill to just an actuarial study of the public concept proposal and to look further into how to get Nevadans already eligible for Medicaid or exchange plans insured. But that amendment that was never seriously entertained by Cannizzaro.

While many of the groups that testified in support of and against SB420 were Nevada-based organizations, the bill also attracted significant national attention, including support from the Committee to Protect Health Care, the Center for Health & Democracy and United States of Care and opposition from the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of some of the health care industry’s biggest names — including the American Hospital Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — as well as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and LIBRE Initiative. Many of those organizations devoted dollars toward their efforts, sending mailers and running ads in support of or against the proposal. 

Sisolak’s signature on the public option bill comes as interest in establishing a national public option, as President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail, appears to be dwindling. Individual states, however, have continued to pursue their own public option proposals. Washington, the first state in the nation to enact public option legislation, has started to offer plans for sale this year and a bill creating the “Colorado Option” passed out of the Colorado legislature on Monday.

PHOTOS: World of Concrete’s opening ends 15-month absence of Las Vegas-hosted conferences

Las Vegas kicked off its first large-scale convention and tradeshow in more than 15 months on Tuesday when the World of Concrete took over the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The three-day construction industry conference also became the first tenant to utilize the convention center’s $1 billion West Hall, a 1.4 million-square-foot expansion that was completed in January. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak, along with county and city elected officials, helped Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill cut the ribbon on the expansion.

The addition of the West Hall brings the total square feet of meeting space in Las Vegas to 14 million. The Las Vegas Convention Center is now the second-largest conference facility in the country. According to the LVCVA, the meeting and convention industry represent $11.4 billion in economic impact to Southern Nevada during a normal year.

The World of Concrete attendees were also the first conference delegates to utilize The Loop, a mile-and-a-half-long underground transportation system that shuttles conference and tradeshow attendees through the Convention Center’s 200-acre campus in less than two minutes – a task that on foot takes up to 25 minutes.

The system runs 40 feet beneath the ground and was constructed by billionaire Elon Musk’s The Boring Co. for $52.5 million and utilizes Tesla vehicles. 

It’s unclear how many attendees are at World of Concrete, which drew more than 50,000 to its last event in Las Vegas in January 2020.

COVID-19 sent the Las Vegas gaming and tourism market to record-setting lows in 2020. The year included a 78-day shutdown of all gaming activities. Convention and meeting attendance was annihilated by the pandemic, with the number of delegates collapsing to a little more than 1.7 million, a decline of 74 percent from the more than 6.6 million meeting attendees in 2019.

World of Concrete trade show conventioneer walks in the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
A show girl dressed in construction gear during the ribbon cutting at the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Gov. Steve Sisolak, left and Steve Hill, LVCVA CEO, right, share scissors during the ribbon cutting at the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
The view of the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Construction equipment from the World of Concrete trade show on display in front of the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
LVCC Loop carries passengers during the World of Concrete trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
LVCC Loop carries passengers during the World of Concrete trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Construction equipment from the World of Concrete trade show on display in the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
A set of heavy duty tires on display at the OTR Wheel Engineering booth at World of Concrete trade show in the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
A convention goer walks the floor at the World of Concrete trade show in the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Convention goers enter the World of Concrete trade show at the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Construction equipment at the World of Concrete trade show on display at the $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak signs much-debated ‘Right to Return’ legislation into law

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation on Tuesday that guarantees the rights of laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers to return to their jobs.

Sisolak’s signature on SB386, referred to as the “Right to Return” bill, came without any fanfare and was announced alongside a host of other bills that earned the governor’s written seal of approval on Tuesday. Sisolak held signing ceremonies for 10 bills, many of which were related to women’s health and criminal or social justice reform. He also signed 28 other bills, including SB386, into law on Tuesday.

Gaming representatives and the Culinary Union struck a deal on the high-profile worker rights legislation with less than a week left in the 120-day legislative session, agreeing to limit the scope of the bill and exempting certain employee classes including managers and stage performers.

Every vote on SB386 was on a straight party line with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed.

Even the addition of an amendment that exempted small businesses attached to casino resorts from complying with the legislation did not attract Republican votes. The change excused small restaurants and vendors that had 30 or fewer employees prior to the pandemic.

As part of the deal, revisions were made to SB4, a bill from the 2020 special session last summer that included government-imposed health and safety standards meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as expanded liability protections for major casino resorts. The changes relaxed requirements on cleaning, such as wiping down minibars, headboards and decorative items on beds, and changed directives to clean throughout the day to instead call for daily cleaning.

Critics of the legislation raised concerns that the bill in its original form would have made it too easy for former employees to sue. The new law offers recourse through the Labor Commissioner or through the courts, but only after an employee notifies an employer of any alleged violation and waits at least 15 days for resolution of the issue.

The Nevada Resort Association took a neutral position in return for those concessions, though not all casino operators were on board. Some of the casino industry's largest companies, including MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, backed the changes. Opposition arose from Las Vegas locals casino companies.

The Resort Association declined to comment on the bill signing.

In a statement, Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said passage of the legislation would “protect over 350,000 hospitality workers” in Clark County and Washoe County. 

“At the height of the pandemic 98 percent of Culinary Union members were laid off and currently only 50 percent are back to work,” Argüello-Kline said. “While a majority of unionized hospitality workers already have extended recall protections in their contracts, most hospitality workers protected by the new SB386 Right to Return law are not unionized.”

South Point Casino-Hotel attorney Barry Lieberman said of the final deal that was struck that many of the changes were still “particularly onerous for non-union smaller nonrestricted licensees.”

Lieberman, a long time Nevada gaming attorney and close adviser to South Point owner Michael Gaughan, said several amendments were “a confusing patchwork of vague, burdensome and non-helpful requirements,” and forced employers “to guess at their peril as to what the bill actually requires them to do.” He suggested the changes infringed on an employer’s right to rehire casino workers who have “superior skills” as opposed to other laid-off workers.

Among the bills that received a signing ceremony on Tuesday were SB190, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, which will allow women to obtain birth control at a pharmacy without a doctor’s visit; AB116, sponsored by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen, which decriminalizes minor traffic violations; and AB404, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Judiciary, which shields applicants for domestic violence-related temporary or extended protection orders from having to disclose their addresses or contact information in certain circumstances. 

The Tuesday events were the latest in a string of bill-signing ceremonies. On Monday morning, Sisolak visited a North Las Vegas elementary school to sign education-related legislation, including the mining tax bill, AB495, and in the afternoon, he held a separate signing ceremony for two bills (SB222 and SB318) that promote diverse communities.