California Gold-Dredging Ban Upheld by High Court

     (CN) — In a win for protectors of California’s natural resources, the state high court ruled Monday that federal laws do not pre-empt a temporary ban on a controversial method of gold mining.
     The state asked the California Supreme Court to review the reversal of Brandon Lance Rinehart’s 2012 conviction for unpermitted use of the suction dredging method of mining after it had been temporarily banned.
     Rinehart operates a mine on federal land in the Plumas National Forest that he claimed after he had discovered mineral deposits on the unreserved public land.
     The unpatented placer claim he holds on the land only allows him possessory interest in the area he is mining since title to the land remains with the United States. If Rinehart had a patented claim, he would get a fee simple interest from the United States and no contest could be brought against the land claim.
     The suction dredging method Rinehart was using removes matter from the bottom of waterways through a high-powered suction hose vacuum so minerals can be extracted before the residue water, containing sand and gravel, is returned to the waterway.
     In 2009, the California Legislature imposed a temporary moratorium on issuing dredging permits until further environmental review could be conducted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, in response to concerns that suction dredging contributed to mercury contamination of both fish and humans and was also disturbing endangered Coho salmon habitats.
     According to Rinehart, whose sentence of three years’ probation was reversed by a state appeals court, California’s suction dredging ban prevents him from using “the only commercially practicable method for extracting gold from his mine.”
     The crux of his argument relies on federal law overriding state law. He maintains Congress granted prospectors the right to mine on federal land without interference from the state when they passed the Mining Law of 1872.
     Gold mining has shaped California since it was discovered in 1848. By 1850, most of the loose gold flakes and nuggets in the Sierra Nevada foothills had been found. Prospectors turned from panning and digging to hydraulic mining where hillsides were blasted with large amounts of high-pressure water so the land would liquefy to release the gold within.
     But the technique caused severe environmental damage since gravel and silt filled up riverbeds downstream, which then triggered floods in the farming communities below.
     The courts became involved after state officials and members of the Central Valley sued the hydraulic mining companies. They were able to get a permanent injunction to stop the practice, which crippled the industry even though hydraulic mining was eventually reauthorized with certain conditions.
     Since the initial discovery of gold, Congress has primarily concerned itself with removing federal obstacles to mining so the ultimate landowner, the United States, would not interfere with individual prospectors’ efforts in mining development.
     In citing the 1872 mining law, Rinehart says that, as a citizen, he can develop the area he discovered without interference from the state.
     However, the seven-judge panel of the California Supreme Court disagreed Monday with Rinehart’s interpretation of the law.
     Citing the mining law Rinehart relies on, Justice Kathryn Werdegar explained that the property clause within the law does not prevent any state from exercising its policing power on federal land — including California’s ongoing regulation of mining within its borders since the law was passed.
     “Claimants are granted a right to possession so long as they comply with the laws of the United States, and with state, territorial, and local regulations,” Werdegar wrote.
     Legislative history does not reveal any intent for the mining laws to displace state law, the ruling states.
     Not giving up, Rinehart continued arguing his point by claiming that the federal law should preempt any state law attempting to regulate mining on federal land since doing so would impair the objectives of Congress.
     In considering legislative intent to determine whether preemption applies, Werdegar wrote that “the State of California’s role in protecting the waters and the fish and wildlife within its borders is long-standing, predating even the federal laws upon which Rinehart relies.”
     She went on to explain that when the state has established a firm regulatory role, there is a strong disfavor against preemption.
     “Under English common law, the sovereign held title to the navigable waters within a land’s borders in trust for the benefit of the people. Under this public trust doctrine, California became trustee of the state’s waters, with responsibility for their oversight, from the beginning of statehood,” Werdegar wrote. “The right and power to protect and preserve such property for the common use and benefit is one of the recognized prerogatives of the sovereign, coming to us from the common law, and preserved and expressly provided for by the statutes of this and every other state of the union.”
     As in the earlier history of hydraulic mining, the ruling continues, states can restrict certain destructive mining techniques if other major resources suffer severe consequences.
     Monday’s opinion shot down all of Rinehart’s final attempts to continue to argue for federal preemption because the cases he cited either predate affirmative decisions regarding the state’s authority to regulate mining within its borders or they are not relevant or convincing.
     In considering the conflict between preserving California’s waters, wildlife, forests and coastlines, and exploiting them for gain, the state can adopt suitable regulations to protect the various resources it values, the seven-judge panel ruled.
     The people are represented by Marc Melnick and Joshua Klein with the Office of the Attorney General in Oakland.
     James Buchal of Murphy and Buchal LLP in Portland, Ore., represents Rinehart.
     Neither of the parties’ attorneys responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

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