published on August 22, 2016 - 7:38 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

(AP) — California’s Supreme Court could clear the way for a new era of gold prospectors more than a century after the state’s historic Gold Rush.

The court is set to rule Monday on the legality of the state’s ban on the use of suction dredges to extract gold from rivers.

At issue is whether a 19th century federal law that allows mining of gold and other minerals on federal land overrules the state’s ban.

Suction dredges are powerful underwater vacuums that suck up rocks, gravel and sand from riverbeds to filter out gold.

Miners say the ban on dredges amounts to a ban on gold mining because mining by hand is labor intensive and makes the enterprise unprofitable.

“Congress did not permit California arbitrarily to destroy what is perhaps the oldest industry in California: small-scale mining on federal lands,” attorney James Buchal, who is representing gold miner Brandon Rinehart, said in court documents. California’s famed gold rush began in the mid-19th century when gold was discovered and tens of thousands of “forty-niners” flocked to the state from around the country.

State officials say suction dredge mining risks killing fish and stirring up toxic mercury.

They say they have a right to protect the state’s environment that is not pre-empted by federal mining law.

“At issue here is the ability of California to exercise its police power to protect the environment, even on federal land,” the state attorney general’s office said in its petition asking the California Supreme Court to review the case.

State officials say they are not banning gold mining, just requiring it be done in an environmentally sensitive way. Miners dispute the state’s concerns about the environment. Buchal said the state has failed to show suction dredge mining has “ever killed so much as a single fish or frog.”

There are over 20,000 mining claims on federal lands in California, according to state officials. Suction dredge mining largely occurs in the Sierras, Trinity Alps and other mountain regions, the state said in its California Supreme Court petition.

California passed a law last year that allows state officials to resume granting permits for suction dredge mining under certain conditions, including the implementation of regulations that ensure the practice does not have any significant effect on fish and wildlife. The conditions have not yet been met, so the ban continues.

Rinehart, the defendant in the case, owns a federal mining claim in the Plumas National Forest. Prosecutors charged him with a misdemeanor for suction dredge mining without a permit in 2012, and a court convicted him and sentenced him to three years of probation.

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