California’s original Forty-Niners made their fortunes in gold with shovels and pans. Modern-day prospectors use a “suction dredge” – a specialized vacuum – to suck up sediment from streams, extract the gold, and then return the sediment to the stream. Federal law not only permits but encourages suction dredge mining, even on federal lands, while states retain the right to require permits and regulate environmental impacts. Unsatisfied with this balanced approach, California banned suction-dredge mining entirely. Brandon Rinehart, who profitably mined his Nugget Alley claim in the Plumas National Forest for years, was convicted of violating the ban over his defense that the ban is preempted by the federal Mining Act of 1872.
Federal law encourages the discovery and commercial extraction of mineral resources on federal lands. In doing so, it relies on each state to implement its own permitting process that requires miners to mitigate potential environmental harms. California, however, does not regulate suction-dredge mining – it flat out prohibits it on the 50 million acres of federally-owned land within the state. The ban affects more than 10,000 active mining claims worked by more than 3,000 prospectors using suction dredges. As a result of California’s ban, miners are forced to abandon their legitimate streambed claims and many are giving up their occupation entirely. This categorical ban stands in direct conflict with the Mining Act of 1872 and is therefore preempted under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.
Prior to the ban, California permitted and regulated suction-dredge mining for decades, issuing tens of thousands of permits. Brandon Rinehart and his father acquired mining claims the old-fashioned way: they searched “free and open” federal lands until they found that golden sparkle in unclaimed streambeds. They complied with all federal requirements to preserve their claim, posted notices with the county and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and commenced suction-dredging the stream on their claims, nicknamed “Nugget Alley.” Rinehart usually extracted half an ounce of gold on an average five-hour day, earning roughly $750 for his efforts.
In June, 2012, Rinehart continued to mine despite the newly-enacted ban. He was charged with criminal violation of the California law. He defended himself on grounds that the ban was preempted by federal law but this argument found no purchase in the California courts and he was ultimately sentenced to three years probation and an $832 fine. With the state courts providing no relief, PLF now represents Brandon Rinehart, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take his case.