California Miners Take on the State on May 1st
Gold miners from across the state are assembling in Rancho Cucamonga for what’s being called the most significant mining case in a generation. A five year old ban on gold mining will finally be heard by a San Bernardino judge who will decide if this is the end of 150 years of gold mining history in California.
The May 1st hearing is the first of several important cases. This case will decide whether the State has the authority to overrule federal mining laws. Miners and other state governments are anxiously waiting to see if the ban will be upheld. If the California court rules the ban is unconstitutional, then other bans such as in Oregon could also be struck down.
The miners contend suction dredging leaves no impact on the environment and the State’s 1300 page environmental impact report overstated effects by ignoring information which proved there were no lasting environmental impacts. The State counters the equipment may be disturbing protected salmon or birds and they need to continue the ban to ensure habitats aren’t disturbed.
“I think it’s great we’re heading to court on May Day,” Said Jerry Hobbs, the president of Public Lands for the People, the organization leading the fight against the State. “Gold dredges have removed more mercury, lead and toxins from California waterways than every government or environmentalist program combined.”
At stake is the future of gold mining in a state built on gold
“I think the State has lost its way.” Said Craig Lindsay, president of the miner advocacy group, the Western Mining Alliance. “They’ve said we can use gold pans, the same as they did in 1849, but we can’t use anything with an engine on it. It would be as if they banned cars, but said you can still walk or use a horse.”
This case will decide whether The State and environmental groups counter the 2011 environmental impact report suggests these small devices could impact wildlife or damage historical resources in the rivers such as sunken ships.
“We’ve been doing this since the 1950’s,” said Lindsay, “You’d think if we were harming wildlife they would be able to point to an example somewhere in the past sixty years. They can’t, it’s never happened. These are small devices powered by lawn mower engines. The vast majority of operations are hundreds of miles from the nearest salmon. The probability of one of us running into a ship is lower than us finding Noah’s ark.”
The miners are challenging the State’s authority over gold mining. They claim the State overreached when it banned mining and federal laws prevent them from imposing a ban on federal mining claims.
The nine year old legal battle started on the Klamath River when environmental groups filed a lawsuit claiming the floating, yellow dredges which dotted the rivers in the summer, could be disturbing the annual migration of Coho salmon and other fish. The case then moved to Alameda County where the court ruled additional environmental studies should be conducted on the effects on salmon. The court imposed an injunction on the practice which the miners later overturned. The State responded by imposing a permanent ban through legislative action.
The May 1st hearing is the first of eight mining related cases filed since the mining ban. The remaining cases, including a challenge to the legality of the environmental study, will be heard over the next six months.
“This case is about freedom, not the environment.” Said Hobbs, whose organization has led the fight to restore mining. “It’s a question of how far they can push you. When running a lawn mower engine in the woods requires a 1,300 page environmental study you have to wonder just when we fell down the rabbit hole. I think we’ve been pushed far enough.”
Legal Costs Stack Up
Public records show the State has spent over $2 million in defending the ban including cash payments to environmental groups. The cost of preparing the environmental study, which took two years, was another $1.5 million.
“We’ve got one lawyer up against eight lawyers from the environmental groups and the entire legal staff of the State. They’re concerned if we win this, then we’ve established a precedent for other people to challenge their authority.” Said Lindsay. “We’ve had strong support from the miners, they’re ready for a win.”
Perhaps the only certainty is May 1st won’t be the won’t be the last day in court over this contentious issue.
The Western Mining Alliance is the largest independent miner advocacyorganization in the country. You can read more about the fight to save gold mining at www.westernminingalliance.org