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Stuck between a plant and a hard place


A rare species plant may stand in the way of Australian mining company Ioneer developing a lithium and boron quarry in the Rhyolite Ridge valley in Nevada, USA.

The proposed quarry will extract lithium and boron, which are primary elements for green technologies. According to New Scientist, the quarry will supply lithium for 400,000 electric car batteries per year and boron to power wind turbines.

However, the area it has proposed the quarry to be built in has a rare plant species known as Tiehm’s buckwheat (Eriogonum tiehmii). The plant grows in the same soil that has lithium and boron minerals.

According to University of Nevada’s Arnold Tiehm, who is the plant’s namesake, only 40,000 specimens of the buckwheat exist – mostly in the area of the proposed quarry. It was first discovered by Tiehm in 1983, with the population staying relatively the same.

Ioneer confirmed with New Scientist that 65 per cent of the plant’s population would be removed if the planned quarry is approved, which has caused outcry from researchers.

“That puts the buckwheat on a one-way path to extinction,” Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) Nevada state director Patrick Donnelly said.

The CBD has sent a petition to preserve the plant’s species.

“We are currently faced with a global extinction crisis,” the petition said. “A recent global assessment found that at least 600 plant species are now extinct and that we are losing plant species at a rate 500 times higher than the background extinction rate.

“The extinction threat to Tiehm’s buckwheat is clear. The proposed project identifies that more than 60 per cent of the living plants of the species would be extirpated in the first phase, and the footprint encompasses the entire global range of the species.

“In fact, the proposed impact to Tiehm’s buckwheat is so egregious that no mitigation measures are acceptable or could lessen the impact to the species.”

The scientists in the petition told New Scientist they do not oppose lithium mining and did not see it fit to compare the benefits of clean energy against biodiversity protection, as the buckwheat was already in a threatened situation despite not being considered endangered.

Ioneer has funded researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, to pursue relocation options for the rare plant.

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