The suction gold dredge settlement hearings reconvened September 4-5, 2014, in front of Judge Gilbert Ochoa in San Bernardino County.
Ron Kliewer, one of our senior writers, is a plaintiff in this case and was present as the hearings reconvened.
The involved parties are not allowed to discuss specific details of the negotiations; however, Ron Kliewer provided a few generalities to update our readers:
If the legal system functions as intended, upholding the rule of law, the dredgers may very well be back in the water by next summer. We can only pray that those in authority uphold the rule of law as it was intended.
By definition, the very title that uses the word ‘settlement’ implies that neither party will get the whole pizza. By working through all the issues and coming to a working agreement, both sides in these cases should be able to walk away with what they feel is a workable settlement.
As one of the plaintiffs, I can’t say anything detailed about the internal process that is taking place, but I can say that I believe there is some golden glimmer showing that we are making progress. It is slow, hard work, and costs a lot of time and money on the part of the plaintiffs—a handful your fellow dredgers traveling from around the country to San Bernardino to fight the good fight—but we are starting to gain momentum in the mining communities’ favor.
It is also expensive to keep our team in the fight with all the legal expense, but we are playing the hand we were dealt and making lemonade out of lemons.
I am cautiously optimistic. Time will tell.
Thanks to you all who have donated to Public Lands for the People —you are as much in the fight as those of us who are in the courtroom. Without your donations, we wouldn’t have made it this far! Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, George Washington and the rest of the Founders aren’t here for this fight. It’s our turn to pick up the torch and fight. Let’s finish strong; we are modern day patriots, upholding freedom and the rule of law that was so generously given to us by our forefathers.
As I write this, the involved parties are back in court for additional hearings. Judge Ochoa also set aside September 30 to October 2, 2014 as additional hearing dates as needed.
A new peer-reviewed study refutes the need for federal protection of the greater sage grouse and contradicts the science used by the Fish & Wildlife Service.
Robert Zink, a University of Minnesota ornithologist, found that “the standard genetic signals of what you expect in declining populations did not appear to be there.”
The Fish & Wildlife Service is attempting to designate critical habitat for the sage grouse, which could severely restrict logging, mining, resource development and construction across eleven western states.
• Tennessee enacts harsh new gold prospecting regulations
Over the past several years, gold prospecting enthusiasts in Tennessee have been engaged with regulators over proposed gold prospecting regulations. The new regulations are out—effective as of August 27, 2014—and they are extreme.
There’s not a ton of gold located in Tennessee, with sporadic amounts scattered throughout the state. There has been enough glacial gold found in the Coker Creek district in the southeastern part of Tennessee that the area continues to attract small-scale prospectors, dredgers and weekend panners. The best gold-bearing areas seem to be concentrated in the Cherokee National Forest.
According to Heylmun (2003), “Coker Creek and its tributaries contain enough gold to make it interesting. Alluvial flats, bench gravels, slopewash, and saprolite also contain gold in places.”
Unlike Western states, there are no public domain lands open to file a mining claim in Tennessee. The 1872 Mining Law does not apply here.
The Gold Prospectors Association of America has a Coker Creek chapter with around 240 members. While there are other prospectors who seek out gold on the Tellico River, Coker Creek and the vicinity, the majority of local prospectors are associated with the GPAA.
In 2012, there was a verbal confrontation between a couple of GPAA members and local swimmers on the Little River. Complaints about the prospectors were received by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Up until that point, gold prospectors operated “under the radar” and enjoyed gold prospecting without interference.
“What happened... on the Little River was new to our experience,” David McKinney, environmental sciences chief at TWRA, stated during an interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel. “We knew there was gold mining on Coker Creek, but in general, that wasn’t an issue.”
The new rules designate non-mechanized prospecting as Class 1 and mechanized mining as Class 2. Any type of prospecting, including panning, would require a permit, though Class 1 would not require a fee.
A Notice of Intent is required for any type of mechanized prospecting, including suction dredging, and that’s only if you can find a location that has not been placed off-limits. High banking is no longer allowed and a Class 2 permit for suction gold dredging will cost you $500 for a five-year permit.
We all know that gold settles into cracks and crevices, but the new rules state “the use of pry bars, chisels, wedges, shovels, etc. to break layers of bedrock is not permitted. Loose rock may be moved and returned to its original position but competent bedrock shall not be disturbed.”
Four-inch dredges will be limited to waterways with a minimum wetted width of 100 feet, and that’s only if you can find a waterway that is free of “threatened or endangered aquatic species, aquatic species deemed in need of management, or designated as critical habitat.”
Any mechanized equipment will have to be removed at least twenty-five feet from a waterway just to be refueled, all excavations have to be filled in and equipment cannot be left in a waterway overnight.
David Owens, a former GPAA member who participated in the rule-making process, said he actually enjoyed working with Bruce Ragon and Jonathon Burr of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation during the rule-making process. Both Burr and Ragon work in the Mining Division at TDEC.
Owens stated, “The problems came from the head office. The draft was completely changed each time it was reviewed by TDEC in Nashville, and more requirements and restrictions were piled on.”
“We’ve always had stream alteration regulations on the books, but [gold prospecting] was so small scale that nobody fooled with it,” said Jonathan Burr.
Burr stated much of the problem was a result of the condensed nature of prospecting in areas like Coker Creek. Gold prospectors were working in close proximity, leaving many unsightly piles and not reclaiming the areas they worked.
I asked Burr about the exclusion of all critical habitat and waters where threatened or endangered species are present, and I mentioned that seasonal restrictions, if implemented, would mitigate this issue.
Burr said the newly implemented regulations will expire in about a year and, if the miners can show they are following the rules, they certainly can negotiate to get seasonal access that avoid spawning times for threatened or endangered species and seek to reopen some of the newly closed waterways.
The new regulations will expire June 30, 2015. A new public notice will be published prior to that date and there will be new opportunities for input from gold prospectors.
The Senator’s office was very receptive to the small miner’s plight and was unaware of the dire problems created by the over-regulation of small-scale mining from so many different fronts. It was pointed out that S 145 may help the large mining companies a little, but falls woefully short in addressing the needs of small operators who make up 85% of domestic mines.