California’s ban on the use of suction dredges to extract gold from rivers is legal and not overridden by a 19th century federal law that allows mining on federal land, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court’s unanimous decision was a victory for environmentalists and a blow to miners, who argued that the ban essentially stopped gold mining because doing it by hand is labor intensive and makes the enterprise unprofitable.
Environmentalists say suction dredge mining risks killing fish and stirring up toxic mercury.
The high court’s ruling came in an appeal of a criminal case in which miner Brandon Rinehart was convicted of a misdemeanor for suction dredge mining without a permit in 2012 and sentenced to three years of probation.
Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar, writing for the court, said the federal Mining Law of 1872 did not guarantee a right to mine free from regulation.
Instead, its goal was to protect miners’ property rights involving the federal land to which they laid claim, she said.
“The mining laws were neither a guarantee that mining would prove feasible nor a grant of immunity against local regulation, but simply an assurance that the ultimate original landowner, the United States, would not interfere by asserting its own property rights,” she wrote.
Rinehart’s attorney, James Buchal, said the high court showed a “casual disregard” for federal law.
He said Rinehart would likely ask the court to review its ruling or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Suction dredges are powerful underwater vacuums that suck up rocks, gravel and sand from riverbeds to filter out gold.
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