VIRGINIA CITY — The closure of a major highway between Carson City and Virginia City because of a sinkhole has reopened a debate about impacts of new digging for gold and silver around the historic mining area.
Regardless of the cause of the damage, the repair of Highway 342 is a priority and officials are hopeful traffic will be moving again near Gold Hill within a few weeks, Nevada Department of Transportation and Storey County said Wednesday.
Critics believe mining in a nearby open pit by Comstock Mining Inc. may be at least partially to blame. The highway is built over an old mine shaft and a layer of mine tailings.
Thor Dyson, a district engineer for the state agency, ordered the road closed due to cracking after heavy rain on Feb. 8. He said there’s no way to know for sure if modern mining contributed to new problems at the site that had issues before mining resumed in 2012.
Similar problems have occurred six different times since 1965. In 2005, a 30-foot sinkhole opened in the middle of the road after a heavy rainstorm.
The current dispute has pitted residents who support mining as an important boost to the economy against those who characterize it as a threat to the environment and the rural lifestyle.
“The elephant in the room is, here we have this highway and right next to it is a 100-foot-deep pit,” said Silver City resident Erich Obermayr, who thinks blasting conducted in the pit could have weakened loose mining material and old mine works beneath the road.
Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, has asked the mine safety section of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry to investigate Comstock Mining for endangering public health and safety by operating the open pit so close to the highway.
“This rogue mining company must be held accountable,” Fulkerson said. “I think it’s pretty crystal-clear they are responsible for it.”
The company maintains it’s not to blame. Scott Jolcover, business director for Comstock Mining, said efforts are underway to determine the best ways to proceed.
Experts with NDOT, Storey County and Comstock Mining are currently reviewing options that include long-term realignment of the road farther to the east. Under the proposal, the mining company, which owns the land on each side and beneath the highway, would bear the cost of the project.
Storey County Manager Pat Whitten said abandoning the road is not an option.