On Jan. 1, 2016, Oregon will join California in at least temporarily banning the use of a controversial gold-mining technique in which miners essentially vacuum up river beds to recover the mineral. Environmental groups say a ban is long overdue. But independent miners say the state is illegally interfering with their federally-granted rights.
It’s been more than a century and a half since James W. Marshall found flakes of gold in the South Fork American River at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma, California. That discovery in 1848 kicked off the California Gold Rush. You might think that by now, all that gold has been used up.
Rick Barclay begs to differ.
"The idea that all the gold in this country is gone is incredibly inaccurate,” he said.
Barclay heads a group called the Galice Mining District that promotes small-scale mining in Josephine County, Oregon.
"I saw a 4 ounce nugget that came off the Rogue River about three years ago. Four ounces. That’s a big piece of gold."
The promise of a find like that keeps Barclay and thousands of modern day prospectors searching for the precious metal. These days, many use a mining method called suction dredging. It involves a floating gasoline-powered pump that sucks up gravel and other material from a river or creek bed and runs it through a sluice box that sifts out the gold. The rest gets returned to the water.
Rick Eddy is a California miner who used to run a suction dredge rig not far from where Marshall made his historic find.
"It’s a good way to make a living, a fun way. It’s safe. It’s not harming the environment in any way," Eddy said.
Officials in California and Oregon disagree with that last part. In 2009, California put in place a moratorium on suction dredging. A subsequent environmental review identified what it termed “significant and substantially more-severe environmental impacts” than had been found in an earlier state study. Miners dispute that, saying there’s scant scientific evidence that they do any environmental harm.
Eddy said the California moratorium has been a real hardship. "It’s just about killed me. I’ve been struggling to survive ever since."
Miners groups have challenged the California ban. It’s currently awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court.
Jonathan Evans is with the Center for Biological Diversity. The Tuscon-based conservation group supports the ban.
"I talk to people and tell them there are people out there vacuuming up riverbeds and then dumping the tailings back into the water bodies, they look at me with a shock on their face and say, ’Can that be legal?’ And unfortunately, it is in some places," he said.
Evans points to studies that say suction dredging disrupts the gravel where salmon and other fish spawn. He says it also harms insects and tiny aquatic creatures that salmon feed on, and stirs up deposits of mercury left over from the old mining days. Evans notes the Karuk Indian tribe in northern California sued 10 years ago to stop what they see as desecration of their cultural sites by suction dredge mining.
"The mining was occurring in ceremonial sites, disturbing archaeological sites," he said. "If you can imagine someone coming into a place as sacred as a church and bringing a backhoe in in the middle of Mass and digging up in front of the altar."
In 2013, Oregon lawmakers passed their own moratorium on the practice. That ban goes into effect on Jan. 1. Barclay said the state has no legal authority to prohibit an activity authorized under a federal mining law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant.
"You gotta realize that the Mining Act of 1872 , even though lots of people don’t really care for it, it’s still the law," Barclay said.
Mining groups are challenging the Oregon ban in federal court in Medford, saying it's unconstitutional. Nick Cady, legal director the Eugene-based conservation group Cascadia Wildlands, is unimpressed with that argument.
"The claim that this is some constitutional right to mine is just facially and legally ridiculous," he said.
Nonetheless, Barclay said he feels no need to obey the moratorium.
"The Galice Mining District’s official policy on this is that we’re going continue to mine, so the state can drop dead," he said.
Barclay has butted heads with government officials over his mining claims before. Last spring, he and his mining partner were cited by the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly operating outside their permits. Fearing the agency would confiscate or destroy his equipment, Barclay called on the armed citizens group known as The Oathkeepers. Dozens of the group’s members camped out at the site for weeks until a judge issued an injunction barring the BLM from taking any action until the case was adjudicated.