Dredgers resurface in court battle
6/2/2012 8:36 AM
By BRAD JONES
GPAA Editor/Content Director
California property and mining rights groups, including Public Lands for the People and Western Mining Alliance, have filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s suction dredging regulations. The suit was filed April 12 and the case went to court May 31, but the hearing was rescheduled for June 28 in San Bernardino.
The new suction dredge draft regulations were released last year and modified regulations were adopted by the California Department of Fish and Game in February.
The new regulations place a limit on the number of dredging permits issued per year to 1,500 among other restrictions. The limit has angered small-scale suction dredge gold miners across the state because the DFG was fully aware there were more than 4,000 dredgers in California before the first two-year state moratorium on dredging, Senate Bill 670.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 670 into law in 2009. Then, to add injury to insult, in 2011, the dredging ban was extended for another five years, under Assembly Bill 120, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Meanwhile, several environmental groups, claiming the new regulations don’t go far enough and will lead to degradation of the state’s waterways, have joined a multi-party lawsuit trying to block the regulations.
The environmental groups named in the lawsuit include the Karuk Tribe, Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Friends of the River, California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance, Foothill Angler’s Coalition, North Fork American River Alliance, Upper American River Foundation and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.
The PLP, WMA and Keene Engineering among other plaintiffs aim to challenge the questionable science and the political process behind the state’s recently completed Environmental Impact Report.
WMA President Craig Lindsay said suction dredge regulations are the result of lobbying by several radical environmental groups, which have produced no evidence that suction dredging harms fish or fish habitat, among other claims.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. The Environmental Impact Report could not prove where one fish had been harmed in 50 years. Suction gold dredges have been removing legacy mercury from the rivers. Miners have removed over 2.5 tons of mercury over the past 50 years. Each year, we are removing more mercury, lead, iron and other toxic metals than any government-funded effort, and we do it for free. Even the environmental groups acknowledge that a suction dredge is the most efficient method for cleaning up mercury; we just differ on our rights to do it,” Lindsay said.
“The new regulations were heavily influenced by environmental groups who seek to ban all activities from the state’s waterways. The state could not show a single instance where a fish anywhere in the state was harmed by suction gold dredging,” he said.
The EIR, which took over two years in planning, preparation and issuance reportedly cost more than $1.5 million in taxpayer funds. The EIR was issued March 16 under the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act. The final report consisted of more than 1,388 pages and included the use of “may, might or could” more than 1,200 times while using the words “is proven” not once, Lindsay pointed out.
The mining groups claim that the report did not follow the guidelines and used a hypothetical situation whereby the state assumed that gold mining had never existed in the state of California and made assumptions about the environment that were non-existent when the EIR was researched and produced.
Today’s miners use portable equipment powered by engines about the size of a lawnmower. This equipment was a common sight on California’s rivers for almost 50 years. A lawsuit by environmentalists and the Karuk Indian tribe claim this method of recovering gold impacts endangered salmon and a moratorium was placed on suction dredging in 2009 pending the release of the EIR.
Ironically, both environmentalists and miners have filed suit to block the EIR, with both groups claiming the report used flawed science. This is one of the few issues on which environmentalists and miners agree, Lindsay said.
The California DFG, while acknowledging that suction dredges remove up to 100 pounds of mercury from the rivers each year, states this amount is “insignificant.” The report concludes that all traces of suction dredge activity are erased after the next flood event.
Environmentalists still argue that is unacceptable. PLP President Jerry Hobbs questioned the logic behind the environmentalists’ claims.
“Where is the line drawn? “We’re not sure what the standard is for protecting the environment. If all traces are erased after the next flood, we’re not adding anything to the waters; we’re removing toxic mercury and not harming a single fish. How much better could it possibly be?” Hobbs said.
WMA Vice President Eric Maksymyk said the current legal battles being fought are crucial to the future of mining in California and across the United States.
While the Sierra Fund is not named in the lawsuit, Maksymyk said this group has had a lot of influence over many of the groups named in anti-mining lawsuits.
“This is much bigger than dredging. The environmental groups have discovered a methodology to stop dredging/mining and they will continue to implement this approach until they have stopped it everywhere. If this SEIR is approved by the courts, we’re all in big trouble,” Maksymyk said.
“They are smart. They pick a fight and put their resources into it. If they win California, then likely Washington state will be next. Their strategy is very clever; they use the Endangered Species Act to force an EIR. And, if the EIR doesn’t come out the way they want, they sue to change it. They are funded through the Equal Access to Justice Act, which means they get reimbursed for their legal costs, while we have to fight out of our own pockets. So, taxpayer dollars fund the attack and working people fund the defense,” he said.
“Essentially, the standards used in this SEIR to evaluate the environmental impact of dredging would result in hiking, fishing, camping or really any type of outdoor activity being subject to being banned as well,” he said.
“The two lawsuits PLP has filed — the AB120 and SEIR challenges — are likely two of the most significant mining lawsuits in our lifetimes. If we lose either one, it will have long range effects on mining. — not just dredging, but all mining. We really need everyone with an interest in preserving our rights to mine to donate to these legal cases,” Maksymyk said.
“There will be no second chance. If we win, we win big; if we lose, we lose big; there is no middle ground here. We picked a fight on the environmentalists’ grounds; now we’ve got to finish it,” he said.
Brad Jones is Editor/Content Director for Gold Prospectors Association of America.