WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2018 — The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a request from recreational gold miners to overturn a California Supreme Court decision upholding a statewide moratorium on recreational suction dredge mining.
The court’s rejection of the request, effectively upholding California’s role in regulating small-scale gold mining, is an important victory for fish, water quality and tribal cultural sites.
“Suction dredge mining is a continuation of the genocidal legacy of goldminers that started over 150 years ago,” said Leaf Hillman, the Karuk tribe’s director of natural resources. “We pressed California to develop stronger protections for our fish, water and cultural sites only to have mining groups sue. Now the courts have clarified California’s authority to regulate this destructive hobby.”
Suction dredge mining typically uses gas- or diesel-powered machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. It threatens important cultural resources and sensitive wildlife species, and the California Native American Heritage Commission has condemned its threats to irreplaceable tribal and archeological resources.
Suction dredge mining pollutes waterways with mercury and sediment and destroys sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds.
“Suction dredge mining recklessly tears up rivers, threatens our waterways and harms imperiled salmon,” said Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “In this time of drought and climate change, we can’t afford to have California’s waterways trashed by a small but vocal group of hobby miners.”
In 2016 the California Supreme Court upheld a statewide moratorium on recreational suction dredge mining for gold and validated mining regulations that protect water supplies, fisheries, wildlife and cultural resources. Suction dredge miners have repeatedly asked the courts to prevent the California Department of Fish and Wildlife from enforcing the current moratorium on suction dredge mining. The moratorium, in place since 2009, is designed to prevent mercury pollution and damage to wildlife, waterways and cultural resources until protective rules are adopted.
Dissatisfied by the California Court’s decisions, suction dredger Brandon Rinehart, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging California’s authority to regulate an activity the miners believe should be governed by federal law. With today’s ruling the California decision stands.
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The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies. It harms state water supplies by re-suspending toxic mercury, sediment and heavy metals. The State Water Resources Control Board and Environmental Protection Agency urged an end to suction dredge mining because of its significant impacts on water quality and wildlife from mercury pollution.
A coalition of tribal, conservation and fisheries groups have been seeking to improve and uphold California’s laws regulating suction dredge mining. This coalition includes the Center for Biological Diversity, the Karuk tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Friends of the River, The Sierra Fund, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Foothills Anglers Association, North Fork American River Alliance, Upper American River Foundation, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, Environmental Law Foundation and Klamath Riverkeeper. Members of the coalition are represented by Lynne Saxton of Saxton & Associates, a water-quality and toxics-enforcement law firm.