Gold Dredgers Push Fishy 1872 General Mining Law To U.S. Supreme Court

After having their reputation dragged through the mud in three states, gold miners in California using a technique that involves dredging are taking their case about the 1872 General Mining Law to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sacramento Bee reports on December 1 that after several years of being stalled, a gold prospector in California is going to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to have a law evaluated about their gold suction dredging techniques.

The gold panning technique involves machinery, but it may conflict with environmental safeguard measures installed to ensure that fish habitats in waterways are protected. The gold dredging machinery is about the size of a lawnmower, and a hose is used to remove minerals from gravel that could include gold.

Gold mining in California is done with panning and not mining.

While California is prominent in gold mining history with an emphasis on panning for gold, in 2009 the state decided against old-fashioned prospectors using the new styles of dredging equipment.

Despite the gold panners explaining that a permitting system could be implemented and insinuating that gold dredging machinery cleans streams that help reinstate fish habitats, the gold prospectors were stalled for environmental reasons.

Earlier in 2016, the case of the gold dredgers versus the State of California finally went to court, but the outcome was not in the favor of the suction gold dredgers.

KCET explains that at the heart of the gold dredger’s case is the General Mining Law of 1872. According to Earth Works Action, the 1872 law applies to gold miners because it “gives anyone the right to stake a mining claim on open public land if they discover a ‘valuable deposit’ of minerals.”

The controversy arose in 2012 when Brandon Rinehart was given a citation for illegal gold dredging with suction equipment, and L.A. Times reported that dredging was becoming an issue in the state due to the following.

“California has experienced a mini-gold rush of sorts in recent years, as low water levels caused by the drought have lured amateur prospectors to riverbed spots that have been out of reach for decades.”

Now, Brandon Rinehart of Antioch, California, is taking his gold dredging case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and this decision could affect gold panners using this equipment in other states.

For example, Washington is also having conflicts with gold dredgers, and PBS reported in early 2016 that their issue was a problem with fish in Washington streams going extinct.

Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

Since there is not enough research being done to figure out the true reason for the fish population declines, environmental groups want to have all gold dredging avoided until the issue is resolved.

Although some argue that the machinery could be environmentally friendly or even promote healthy streams for fish to live, the other side of the problem is getting the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to enforce laws related to gold dredgers that break the rules.

Gold dredgers in Oregon are also finding restrictions. Law 360 reported in October that the organizers behind the gold dredging bans in California and Washington were now placing their focus on undermining the 1872 General Mining Law in Oregon.

In all three states, the insistence that gold dredging needs to be banned was tied into the decline of the region’s salmon fishing industry.

If the U.S. Supreme Court makes a ruling on the 1872 General Mining Law, this means that the final chapters of the gold panning history of the West Coast may be written. In 2013, Bakersfield Now stated that the Soledad Mountain Project was one of California’s last major gold operations.

Currently, it is estimated by the U.S. Geological Society that there may be “52,000 tons of mineable gold” that still has not been discovered, according to BBC. Over the years, there have been many anthropology professors that attempt to give reasons about why humans of the past were so attracted to gold.

J.H.F. Norton, author of Ancient Egyptian Gold Refining: A Reproduction of Early Techniques, proposes a theory that gold became valuable to ancient humans because it is extremely easy to refine from ore by using fire to heat the rocks and release the gold. Without needing to heat it up very much, gold can be isolated and used to make something else.

One other theory proposed by Jack Ogden in his book, Ancient Jewelry, is that gold could have become so treasured in the past because it is not especially easy to come across. Since the supply has always been lower than the demand, gold has remained a hot commodity on the buyer’s market. Once civilization expanded, gold had a new role as money.

[Featured Image by Shannon Heryet/Shutterstock]