The Comstock goes boom

Gold diggers plan to “revitalize” the Comstock, for better or worse

Comstock Mining Inc. is drilling for gold and silver in Silver City, pictured, and on other mining claims scattered across the Comstock district. Residents say the mining hits too close to home.

Comstock Mining Inc. is drilling for gold and silver in Silver City, pictured, and on other mining claims scattered across the Comstock district. Residents say the mining hits too close to home.

Photo courtesy of Theo McCormick

Comstock Mining Inc. has been attending monthly Silver City Town Advisory Council meetings to discuss its plans with residents. The next one will be Tuesday, March 1 at 7p.m. Meetings are held the first Tuesday of every month at the Silver City Community Center on High and Second streets.

Theo McCormick, a resident of Silver City since 1972, lives in the house his father built. Because it’s in the Comstock historical district, he has to get permission to paint it. He was once told he couldn’t put a sliding glass door in it because it wasn’t historical.

“I’m tired of having to go through these regulations and look across the canyon and see these mining companies just tearing it up,” he says. “I don’t feel that open pit mining or strip mining is compatible with residential neighborhoods. The idea they can open a pit mine literally within the city limits just boggles my mind.”

“They” in this case is Comstock Mining Inc., formerly GoldSpring. It’s bought about 6,500 acres worth of mining claims in the Comstock District since 2003. The claims cover parts of Gold Hill, Silver City, the Dayton and Lucerne resource areas, and just south of Virginia City. CMI plans to begin mining this year at its starter mine in the Lucerne area, where it’s permitted, with processing to be done at American Flat. It still needs various permits on other claims.

“We have validated about 1.6 million gold equivalent ounces, and the way that breaks down is just about 1 million of gold and about 17 million of silver,” says Comstock Mining CEO Corrado De Gasperis. “Gold is valuable at $1,300 an ounce.”

It would be a smaller-scale production, mining about 20,000 ounces per year, compared to, say, Barrick Goldstrike’s 2 million ounces per year.

The company has set aside at least $1 million for reclamation efforts, a number many residents think is too small.

Comstock Mining describes its efforts as “revitalizing the Comstock,” saying it will create 30-50 jobs for mostly locals. While it doesn’t have to pay royalties for minerals extracted, it will pay a net proceeds tax. As for what that could amount to, De Gasperis says, “Annually it could be hundreds of thousands, and ultimately we believe it would be millions.” Some community members are not convinced.

“In my mind, revitalizing the Comstock through strip mining doesn’t sound very genuine to me,” says McCormick, who is part of a citizen group, as yet unnamed, that’s formed to fight the company’s efforts. “I’m not sure how you’d revitalize a tourist area by digging giant holes in the ground.”

Comstock Mining has been both notably open and frustratingly vague with the community. They’ve been attending monthly community meetings in Silver City to share information and answer questions, yet they’re not providing many details. Part of that is because, according to De Gasperis, there’s much even CMI doesn’t yet know.

For instance, Comstock Mining plans to use open pit mining in the Lucerne area in Storey County because the property is already an open pit mine. But for other drilling areas, the plan is unclear. “Our best prediction would be open pit, and it’s most likely,” says De Gasperis. “We just started drilling, we don’t even know what’s totally there. But from prior data, we know 200,000 ounces is very near the surface [in the Dayton resource area]. It’s a lot of value, and we believe there could be tremendously more there.”

When residents hear “pit mining” they think of a giant hole gauged out of a mountain—a view even De Gasperis describes as “scarred.” He says the small-scale mining CMI plans to do won’t look like that, though residents have trouble imagining a form of open pit mining that would be palatable.

De Gasperis also says the company has no plans to remove residents from their properties through eminent domain, as mining companies did in the 1980s in Gold Hill. But it is a tool at mining companies’ disposal.

“There’s nothing in our plans that need that,” says De Gasperis. “The notion of eminent domain is insane.”

However, some of the company’s claims are within an area zoned residential, though De Gasperis says no one currently lives there. CMI plans to apply for a zoning change there from residential to “resource”—a move sure to face resistance—which would allow mining to take place on the property.

While residents currently seem most upset by noise from the drilling—the company agreed to start a couple of hours later in the day, 8 a.m., to address this complaint—the notion that mining would take place within or very near residential areas riles area citizens and their supporters.

“One of the mines is immediately behind the Gold Hill Hotel, which is a landmark hotel, and people go to it,” says Susan Juetten of Great Basin Resource Watch. “The Yellow Jacket Mine, one of the old mines they have a claim on, is on the other side of the parking lot. … These are delicate old buildings, so maybe they won’t knock them down, but they’ll be on the edge of a pit.”

Add to that the trucks that will have to transport the minerals to American Flat, between Silver City and Gold Hill. “The emissions from the trucks may be keeping under EPA standards, but if you’re across the street, they wouldn’t be keeping up to your standards for how you want to live,” says Juetten. “Especially for folks who moved up there because it’s quiet.”

“People say, ‘You move into a mining town, you should have expected this,’” says McCormick. “There’s really no comparison between what they did in the 1800s and what they can do now. … These guys can move mountains.”

De Gasperis says it won’t be as bad as residents fear. “My words don’t mean anything,” he says. “But our actions will follow directly.”

Meanwhile, as gold sits beneath the surface of the Comstock, its value shining strongly across stock exchange boards, McCormick looks at his community—a place of about 200 people, where free, town-wide potlucks are common, and kids, parents and grandparents tend an organic community garden. They’ve fought mining interests in the past, and they intend to do it again. While mining companies are powerful, McCormick says area residents are, too.

“We’re not a community that’s to be messed with lightly,” he says. “Due to the previous battles we’ve done, the mining companies are aware of that. There’s a saying from the 1800s that one of the newspapers had, it was, ‘If Silver City can’t do it, it’s not worth doing.’ We’re a pretty powerful community.”