Comstock Mining Update – March 13, 2013

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BLM relents, allows CMI to use the disputed haul road
This isn’t happening in Gold Hill from 7 am to midnight any more, but the mountains are still being destroyed and the pit is crawling with activity. Photo by Max Winthrop

The saga of pit mining in the Virginia City National Historic Landmark took another strange swerve when the BLM suddenly relented and allowed Comstock Mining Inc. to use the disputed haul road to truck its ore from the Lucerne Pit to the processing facility in American Flat.

This is a huge relief to everyone who uses this highway, but it doesn’t stop the devastation in Gold Canyon. CMI has yet to file even a basic ‘Mining Plan of Operation’ yet it is allowed to chew down our mountains with impunity. Why?

That is only one of the questions being asked on the Comstock just now.

As a matter of procedure the company’s request to amend the SUP was referred back to the Planning Commission, which narrowly approved it, 3 votes to 2 at its long and rancorous meeting of July 19. I may be wrong but I think those were the first two votes our position received in an official Storey County proceeding.

In recognition of the fact that ore trucks on the highway would have a negative impact on everyone else — residents, commuters, tourists and the general public — Commissioner Prater proposed a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” by which the company would mitigate this impact until such time as it could again use the haul road.

Pay close attention now, because this is where the story leaves mere complexity behind and enters the surreal. Recall that District Attorney Maddox had advised everyone that Condition 5 was illegal from the start because only NDOT can regulate highway use. All the Storey County officials used that as their mantra.

Storey County’s Senior Planner Austin Osborne said, “Because we do not have jurisdiction over the state highway, no condition we impose is binding. . . . CMI continually expresses that they want to be good stewards of the land and good for the community. . . . I believe in this case . . . that they will conform to these conditions, regardless of them being a requirement or not.”

Company representatives eagerly agreed to observe the conditions: No trucks on the highway on weekends or holidays, otherwise Monday through Friday, 9 am – 7 pm. No trucks to run when snow or ice is “obviously” present. Loads will be covered.

Starting the next morning those conditions were scrupulously observed.

When the matter came back to the Storey County Commissioners on November 13, each Commissioner cited the District Attorney’s opinion that Storey County doesn’t have the authority to keep haul trucks off the highway so long as they are licensed and insured, and voted unanimously to amend the SUP and allow the trucks on the highway as the company requested.

The next day two things happened.

First, the good stewards at CMI abandoned the “Gentlemen’s Agreement”. Trucks now run from 7 am or before with loads uncovered and on seemingly random weekend days. There is no longer any thought of mitigating the noise, the dust and the traffic congestion.

And second, the Comstock Residents Association sued Storey County and CMI.

We asked the Court to tell Storey County that it does have the authority to keep mining trucks off the highway after all — which is what I mean about surreal: CRA is suing Storey County to prevent it from giving up its authority to govern. It’s like dealing with a crazy person who wants to hurt himself, and it’s sad to see the County reduced to such a state.

District Attorney Maddox responded to our suit with a Motion to Dismiss. He asserted that NDOT was in control and should have been named in the suit.

The judge rejected Maddox’s motion, stating “The condition does not regulate Highway 342 and does not impact NDOT’s control of Highway 342.”

Good. Not only is the Motion denied, the whole line of argument is rejected. We now expect Judge Wilson to rule that the County has a perfect right to keep ore trucks off the highway.

In the meantime, CMI continues to ignore its end of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement”. Perhaps the vote by the Commissioners to let them do as they pleased meant it was no longer necessary to keep up the pretense.

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