California Gold Dredgers Edge Closer to a Summer Mining Season
On Friday California gold miners were heartened by a San Bernardino county superior court ruling. Judge Gilbert Ochoa ordered settlement discussions between the state, environmental groups and suction dredge miners. The order will include all mining lawsuits currently pending before the San Bernardino court.
Suction dredge miners packed the courtroom as the first of several mining lawsuits was heard. Judge Ochoa sharply questioned the State’s lack of a timeline to re-open suction gold dredging now that the environmental impact report is complete. It appeared Judge Ochoa was prepared to issue a ruling, but later back tracked and ordered all sides to settlement discussions to begin the 24th
“We’d certainly rather have an outright win,” said Jerry Hobbs of Public Lands for the People (PLP), “But, we’re willing to listen to what the State has to say.”
PLP has been leading the fight against California’s suction dredging ban for nearly nine years and has filed several lawsuits against what they claim is state overreach. The lawsuits began on the Klamath River in 2005, when anti-mining interests pushed for a ban on suction dredging. The State of California was poised to enter into a settlement agreement with environmental groups when PLP and other mining groups interceded.
The miners contend California’s ban is illegal and suction dredging leaves no impact on the environment. They argue the 1300 page environmental impact report overstated effects and is based on flawed science.
In 2009, an Alameda County Superior Court ruled a ban wasn’t necessary. They ordered the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to conduct additional studies to see if there were any effects on endangered salmon species. Delays in finishing the study led to a second anti-mining lawsuit and resulted in an injunction which the miners later overturned.
Miners Anxious For a Win of June.
Although the order is a step forward for lawsuit weary miners, they still face the prospect of a delayed mining season. Many miners rely on the summer season for all or some of their income and with rivers at record low levels they’re anxious to get back to mining.
Professional gold miner, Rick Eddy, of Pilot Hill, vented his frustration. “I’ve been mining gold for almost 20 years. Mountain rivers move everything in them during floods. The only thing stopping mercury from heading downstream was us. The real issue is money. Those groups are getting millions in taxpayer funds to talk about mercury, but they’re not removing any of it.”
After nine years the miners would welcome a settlement which restored dredging. “Nine years is a long time,” said Hobbs. “The anti-mining groups get reimbursed for their lawsuits, we don’t. The State has already paid over $400,000 to their lawyers. We hope the rest of industry is watching these lawsuits. It’s a short step from banning gold dredges to banning chain saws.”
Hobbs said this is the third time the groups have been ordered to settlement discussions and many miners believe the outcome will be the same.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of common ground between us and the anti-mining groups.” Said Craig Lindsay, of the Western Mining Alliance. “It’s like putting dogs and cats in a room and asking them to work out their differences.”
“Prior to the environmentalists stepping in, we were dredging gold, removing toxins from the rivers, and putting money in our pockets. We had ten straight years of dropping mercury levels.” Said Lindsay. “Now, the State’s spending millions to defend a ban on lawnmower engines attached to vacuum cleaner hoses while mercury levels in wildlife have increased.”
Lindsay is referring to data released by the US Geologic Survey showing mercury levels in insects on the Yuba River have markedly increased since the prohibition on dredging. Miners have long argued the suction dredges decrease mercury levels, and this new data bolsters their claim.
Under court order, the two sides will sit down and discuss the fate of 150 years of California history. In the balance is the last of the iconic gold miners working their claims much the same as the original ‘49ers did. While the gold miners hope to preserve this bit of history for future generations, the opponents of dredging hope to drive gold mining from the rivers for good.