State launches pollution probe of mine near Virginia City

RENO — A state investigation is underway into why air pollution control devices were not properly placed at a mine outside Virginia City.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection ordered a one-week shutdown of Comstock Mining Inc.’s ore crushing operations in August after learning about the violation.

According to documents obtained by the Reno Gazette-Journal, the agency took the action after an inspection revealed the ore crushing facility was functioning without required devices to prevent particulate air pollution.

The order was lifted Aug. 23 after required pollution control gear was installed “pretty quickly,”agency spokeswoman JoAnn Kittrell said.

The agency is now reviewing a report submitted earlier this month by Comstock Mining to determine how and why the required devices were removed after initial installation and whether any penalties will be assessed against the company. The process could take weeks, she said.

“They are investigating everything,” Kittrell told the newspaper. “The extent of the problem and the fees are to be determined. Any time the conditions of a permit are not being met, it’s a concern.”

Comstock Mining CEO Corrado De Gasperis said the problem to a large extent stemmed from a simple misunderstanding, and there were no pollutant emissions.

He said company employees had relocated some pollution-control devices at the crushing plant with a goal of increasing efficiency and inadvertently violated regulations in doing so.

“Somehow, we got ahead of ourselves in modifying our system with the intent for improvement,” De Gasperis said. “It was a miscommunication and it has to be on us. We were not technically in compliance, but we immediately fixed it.

“If it elevates to the level of a fine or not, I have no idea. I just think the whole thing was unfortunate,” he added.

Critics who have fought the mining operation from the start cite the problem as further evidence the company poses an environmental threat and can’t be trusted.

“This is just one more example,” said David Toll, a founding member of the Comstock Residents Association. “This is nothing new. The disregard for the health, safety and well-being of their neighbors is constant.”

It comes as mine operators await a new permit they say could allow them to double production — and 14 months after the company started mining gold and silver in a historic community divided over modern mining activity.

A massive, underground lode of silver and gold around Virginia City that was discovered in 1859 produced one of the world’s greatest bonanzas and drew people from around the world. Its wealth played a key role in San Francisco’s growth and helped finance the Union cause during the Civil War.

Virginia City, located some 25 miles southeast of Reno, was named a national historic landmark in 1961 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.