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A few miles off Highway 50, nestled in the hills between Virginia City and Moundhouse, Nevada is the tiny town of Silver City. Silver City is a charming, historical, unincorporated community of 180 people. Famous for its ties to the Gold Rush in the 1800’s, this town was established in the late 1850’s and became a bustling city as people flocked to the area to mine the land’s abundant source of gold and silver. Eventually, mining stopped altogether in 1950, leaving the once booming city almost a ghost town (Silver City Setting and History, 2016). In the 1960’s, however, came a “cultural shift” thanks to young people migrating from California, and with them they brought activism, liberal beliefs, and an artistic way of life. Since then, Silver City has had “strong artistic and literary traditions” (Western Mining History, n.d.). Silver City’s rich history combined with its artistic culture makes for a town with lots of personality. However, for the last six years or so, things around Silver City have been threatening to change. Comstock Mining Incorporation (CMI) has proposed an open pit mine just yards away from the residential community, which the company refers to as the Dayton site. While Silver City has roots in mining, that is no longer what this town identifies with. The residents fear their community will be disrupted and destroyed by the environmental impacts of open pit mining, and they are fighting for their town.
According to an environmentally conscious resident I interviewed who wishes to remain anonymous, Silver City is very community oriented. There are monthly acoustic jam nights, frequent potlucks, and weekly community gardening gatherings, among other get-togethers (Anonymous, personal communication, May 31, 2019). “We are homesteaders,” Anonymous said. “Everyone is environmentally aware. It has been overall a really delightful experience… finding people who are likeminded” (personal communication, May 31, 2019). The residents take pride in the land they live on and enjoy the scenery right outside their backdoors. A drive down by the local community center and community garden will reveal many houses of different sizes, colors, and personalities. There are old cars and lots of potted flowers and plants, as well as funky yard art adorning the residents’ homes. These people take pride in their homes and the town in which they have instilled their values and beliefs as a community. They enjoy their peace, safety, and privacy up in the deserted hills. During an interview with Erich Obermayr, Silver City resident of 25 years and member of the Citizen Advisory board, said that “having the operation there… would change the character of the town” (personal communication, June 7, 2019). I interviewed Obermayr at the community center, where he told me a little bit about the history of the building. He described the many phases of which that building had gone through, and the combined effort he and the community poured into having it re-built with historic accuracy after a fire in 2004 (personal communication, June 7, 2019). This is a special town to Obermayr and the whole community, and they are dedicated to making it so.
Silver City Community Garden
Silver City Community Center
Comstock Mining Inc. describes itself as “an emerging leader in sustainable and responsible mining.” On their “About Us” page, the website describes the goal of the company as follows:
The near term goal of our business plan is to deliver stockholder value by validating qualified reserves (proven and probable) from our first two resource areas, Lucerne and Dayton, and significantly grow the commercial development of our operations through extended, long-lived mine plans that are economically feasible and socially responsible (Comstock Mining Inc., n.d.).
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When the town was first established, the mining allowed the town to be economically successful. However, that is not the case now, because the profit from the mine goes straight into investors’ pockets, not the local economy (Anonymous, personal communication, May 31, 2019). Furthermore, the company’s language when speaking to the residents is different from the goal stated above. CMI has told the community that they want the residents to “collaborate with them for a win-win result” (Obermayr, personal communication, June 7, 2019). But to the citizens, there is no winning on their side. To the residents, the company’s goal (to deliver stockholder value) and communication with Silver City seem to be contradicting each other. Obermayr said that “at the same time, they tell us how important this community is to them and how much they like us, and then they bribe county commissioners” (personal communication, June 7, 2019).
How did all this start in the first place? Up until 2013, Silver City was protected from industrial uses by the Lyon County Master Plan. However, CMI applied for an amendment to be exempted from the Master Plan, so that they could be permitted to mine in Silver City. The application was “overwhelmingly opposed by the residents and the Citizen Advisory Board” (Welcome to Silver City, n.d.). The Citizen Advisory board serves as the governing body for Silver City since the town is unincorporated. The Board “keeps communication between citizens and the Lyon County Board of Commissions” (Anonymous, personal communication, May 31, 2019). However, the Lyon County Board of Commissions ended up approving CMI’s application for exemption against the wishes of Silver City citizens. According to my interview with Anonymous, this happened because Silver City resident Vida Keller, who holds a position on the Lyon County Board of Commissions, owns a contracting business with her husband that makes money off CMI. As a result, the approval of CMI’s application to the Master Plan has led Silver City residents to believe that this was a “back door deal”, in the words of my anonymous interviewee (personal communication, May 31, 2019). According to savesilvercity.org, Vida Keller was using a personal phone and personal email to communicate with CMI. There was a Nevada Supreme Court case dealing with the issue, because the residents felt that they were violated their due process when Keller did not recuse herself from the decision. However, the case was dismissed. (Welcome to Silver City, n.d.). For the time being, CMI still has plans to dig the open pit mine in Silver City.
In order to understand what is at stake for Silver City, we need to understand how open pit mining works. The process of mining in general (including open pit) includes three main phases: exploration, development, and active mining (Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide [ELAW], n.d.). The environmental impacts of open pit mining are numerous. Exploring includes clearing the area of vegetation, either by logging or burning, so that large vehicles with drilling rigs can get to the area (ELAW, n.d.). This of course damages native plants and disrupts wildlife habitats. Silver City is known to have wild horses crossing streets and grazing on hillsides. Not to mention wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, deer, hawks, owls, and many other Northern Nevada fauna. After my interview with Obermayr, I drove around this little town, and saw several dogs roaming around freely without a leash (and sometimes without an owner). That is the beauty about this town—homeowners feel comfortable letting their dogs (and other pets) roam around without fear of them getting injured, run over or stolen.
An unattended dog I met while exploring Silver City
Furthermore, the process of extracting the ore (which is rock containing the mineral deposits) can involve explosives, bulldozers, dump trucks, loaders, and haulers (ELAW, n.d.). Not only do the explosives pollute the air, but the emissions from this heavy machinery contribute to the pollution as well. Moreover, in order to get to the ore deep in the ground, there is lots of waste rock, or “overburden” that is tossed aside. This overburden can contain toxic chemicals such as cadmium, lead, and arsenic. The amount of overburden in a mine is often much more than the amount of mineral ore (ELAW, n.d.). This means that if there is a lot of desirable ore waiting to be extracted, then there is way more overburden waiting to be thrown out. According to Obermayr though, there is not enough gold to be mined profitably at the Dayton site in Silver City. Most of the gold, he told me, is in microscopic particles (personal communication, June 7, 2019). In order to find those zones of these microscopic particles, CMI must do exploratory drilling.
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Silver City has already experienced this exploratory drilling. One resident said that the vibrating of the drilling was “so intense… the physical vibrations were going into our bones” (Yellow Truck Productions, 2017). The video can be viewed here: https://www.savesilvercity.org/videos/. Erich Obermayr referred to the setup of the hills as a big amphitheater. “You could hear them drop a wrench, let alone the sound of the engines… and the real winner is the back-up beepers” (personal communication, June 7, 2019). Anonymous even said that the drilling caused dishes to break in the residents’ homes. Anonymous said she is worried not only for the wild horses, cats, and dogs that roam free in the residential community, but also that the drinking water will be contaminated (personal communication, May 31, 2019). With open pit mining, the pit must be dug below the water table, and often the miners will pump the water elsewhere (ELAW, n.d.). This poses a risk of contamination to the town’s water supply.
I contacted CMI directly to get more information on their plans and intentions, but I did not hear anything back. However, the CEO of CMI, Corrado De Gasperis, has stated that if mining were to commence, they would minimize the impact for the sake of the community (Margiott, 2019). I asked Obermayr what he thought a “minimized impact” would look like, and he described to me specific conditions that CMI would have to abide by if they were permitted to mine, such as operating during only certain hours of the day. But Obermayr said that there is no way to mitigate the impacts of the mining. “I cannot imagine a way that that [mining] can be done without totally disrupting life here in town (Obermayr, personal communication, June 7, 2019).
The people of Silver City are not only fighting for their town’s environment, but they are fighting for its integrity. They have worked hard to make it a place that they are proud of, and where they enjoy living. The open pit mine would change all of that. The Silver City residents have infused their town with their values and beliefs, and if the town is impacted by mining, the individuals are too. Anonymous says if CMI goes through with the mining, she’ll be stuck living there. “It’s horrifying,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to sell the house, so my only option is to live here and raise hell.” Anonymous wants the public to know about this issue because “it’s another problem of companies’ interests being held in a higher regard than peoples’ interests.” Referring to the greed of companies, she said, “It’s an illness. We need to shift the paradigm.” Her strategy and advice to fighting big corporations is to “get local and get passionate” (personal communication, May 31, 2019). For now, the town is waiting for Comstock’s next move. The company has yet to begin active mining. They are still in the planning and exploring phase, but no matter what comes their way, Silver City residents will be fighting tooth and nail.
A weathered “No Open Pit Mines” sign
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