California Supreme Court Upholds Moratorium on Suction Dredging

In People v. Rinehart, the California Supreme Court recently upheld a moratorium on the use of suction dredge methods to extract gold from federal mining claims.

Since 1961, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued permits for suction dredging, a method of extracting gold that relies on a suction hose to vacuum deposits from a streambed. In 2009, the California legislature imposed a temporary moratorium on suction dredging, in response to concerns that the method was especially harmful to fish and water quality. Three years later, while the moratorium was in effect, the petitioner was convicted for illegally engaging in suction dredging on his federal mining claims. On appeal, he asserted that suction dredging was the only commercially practicable method for exercising his federal mining rights, and that the state’s moratorium impermissibly conflicted with federal mining laws. A California appellate court agreed, and remanded on the premise that petitioner had a colorable claim for preemption under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Granite Rock.

In a unanimous ruling, the California Supreme Court reversed. The court found that neither the language nor the objectives of the federal mining laws preempted California’s interests in environmental protection. Specifically, the court found that federal law did not prevent the state from restricting certain methods of mining which the state deemed too impactful: “[t]he federal statutory scheme does not prevent states from restricting the use of particular mining techniques based on their assessment of the collateral consequences for other resources.” The impracticability of using methods other than section dredging did not, in the court’s view, establish a conflict with federal law. The court compared the case to the 1884 Woodruff decision which had the effect of functionally outlawing large-scale hydraulic mining in California.

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