Gold miners in California cannot escape the state’s moratorium on suction dredge mining riverbeds for gold simply because the mining is done on federal land, the state Supreme Court rules Monday.
The historic quest for gold in California no longer can include suction dredging, that dumps tailings, which can include toxic mercury, back into the stream. The state has regulated suction dredging for over 50 years.
The high court unanimously rejected the claim by Brandon Rinehart that his federal mining claim in Plumas National Forest exempted him from the state’s ban on high-pressure vacuums to sift river rock for gold.
The state banned use of dredge mining for gold to protect fish habitats among other things. Rinehart was convicted in 2012 of criminal charge of engaging in a banned mining technique.
The federal law that Rinehart relied on to claim federal preemption from the state’s ban was intended to protect miners’ property rights to prospect on federal land but “it did not go further and guarantee to them a right to mine immunized from exercises of the states’ police powers,” Justice Kathleen Werdegar said for the court.
In 2009, the state Legislature imposed a moratorium on suction dredging to review the potential that the technique contributed to mercury contamination of salmon and humans. This form of dredging uses high-powered suction hoses to sweep up loose material from the bottom of a streambed. Heavier material, such as gold, sinks. It is separated at the surface by passing the material through a floating sluice box. The excess water, sand and gravel is discharged back into the river.
“Nothing in California’s regulation of suction dredging implicates or interferes with any of the purposes and objectives underlying this congressional reallocation of rights,” Werdegar wrote.
Case: People v. Rinehart, No. S222620