Oregon Miners Take DEQ to Court, Again
January 2011 by Tom KitcharSince 2005, a group representing a handful of Oregon and Washington mining organizations, centered around the Eastern Oregon Mining Association (EOMA) and the Waldo Mining District (WMD), have been actively fighting the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) over their then new “700PM Suction Dredge Mining Permit.” In the fall of 2005, EOMA filed a Petition for Judicial Review of the new permit in the Oregon Court of Appeals on the grounds that the permit was too restrictive and more importantly, it was (and still is) the wrong permit.
§402 vs. §404: DEQ, through an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is issuing the permits in part under the EPA’s authority (§ 402 of the Clean Water Act (CWA)) to issue “National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System” (NPDES) permits, which are normally issued for the discharge from municipal sewage treatment plants and other industries that discharge pollutants into waters from onshore facilities. Because of this, Oregon miners face a host of impossible restrictions, regulations, and fines.
The miners believe that “even if” they fall within CWA authority, it would be under the Army Corps of Engineers and §404 of the CWA for the discharge of “dredged material”—not the EPA and §402 for the discharge of “pollutants.”
Oral arguments were heard on Sept. 5, 2008 in the Court of Appeals, and a decision was presented on Dec. 23, 2009. The court found that DEQ exceeded their authority by not specifying what part of the discharge from suction dredges they were permitting and by doing so, they were regulating discharges that are properly under §404 of the CWA (Army Corps) without the authority to do so.
The court declared the 2005 700PM permit invalid. However, the court went on to say that not only was the discharge from a suction dredge comprised of 1) “dredged material” properly under §404 of the CWA and the Army Corps, and 2) “water”; the court then (against the clear language in the CWA and the 2009 US Supreme Court decision in Coeur Alaska v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council) stated that “the discharge of turbid wastewater was properly under §402 of the CWA and the EPA.” In other words, the court said that miners in Oregon who discharge streambed sediment back into the water it came out of now need both a §402 and a §404 CWA permit despite the fact that large-scale river dredging for navigation is only required to obtain the §404 CWA permit.
Because the Court of Appeals misinterpreted the CWA, EOMA was forced to appeal the decision to the Oregon Supreme Court (OSC). On Sept. 17, 2010, the OSC agreed to hear the EOMA appeal. However, on Sept. 27, DEQ filed a Motion to Dismiss the EOMA appeal on the grounds that the “permit has expired, their case is moot.”
On Nov. 10, 2010, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with DEQ and dismissed the EOMA case as moot with no further explanation. On Nov. 24, EOMA filed a Petition for Reconsideration begging the high court to take a second look. To date, we are still awaiting their response. The EOMA petition stated, in part:
The actions of [DEQ] have put at stake the continuing existence and living heritage of the individual small-scale placer gold miners whose predecessors originally settled Oregon over one hundred fifty years ago. By misinterpreting the federal Clean Water Act, Respondents have imposed a permit regime that is economically prohibitive and environmentally unwarranted, frustrating “the continuing policy of the Federal Government in the national interest to foster and encourage private enterprise in… the development of economically sound and stable domestic mining, minerals, metal and metal reclamation industries. 30 USC §21a.
Respondents [DEQ] regulate the miners’ tiny, hand-operated, lawn-mower engine-powered suction dredges under a complex regulatory scheme designed to cover toxic discharges from industrial facilities and municipal sewage treatment plants: §402 of the Federal Clean Water Act…
The Respondents refuse to recognize that dredging involves the “discharge of dredged or fill material,” which may only be regulated under §404 of the Act, 33 USC §1344—a point confirmed… by the controlling decision of the United States Supreme Court in Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, 129 S. Ct. 2458 (2009). The Coeur opinion, the plain language of the Act, the plain language of the controlling regulations, and the legislative history all confirm that Congress never intended the same regulatory regime to apply to both the disposal of sediment and rock dredged from the bottom of water bodies and the discharge of toxic chemicals by manufacturers and others.
Notwithstanding clear federal law, the Court of Appeals, in a decision that lacks any judicial precedent throughout the United States, concluded that the suction dredge discharges here could be parsed in some inherently arbitrary way into (a) larger particles that fell to the bottom of the water bodies faster, and (b) smaller particles that remained suspended longer (causing temporary turbidity), thereby imposing a dual permitting requirement unknown in federal and other law.
_______________While Oregon Miners waited for a decision whether the OR Supreme Court would hear the EOMA appeal, DEQ issued a new 700PM permit in July 2010 that replaced the previous invalidated 2005 permit. (This is how DEQ could claim that the 2005 issues are moot, i.e.; that permit no longer exists).
Miners Challenge The New 2010 Permit
On Sept. 24, 2010, EOMA filed a Petition for Judicial Review in the Circuit Court for the State of Oregon in Baker County; and the WMD filed a Petition for Judicial Review in the Oregon Court of Appeals. Both petitions argue once again that it is the wrong permit, under the wrong jurisdiction, contains unwarranted prohibitive restrictions, etc.
On Sept. 28, 2010, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC), along with Klamath/Siskiyou Wild and one individual, filed a Petition for Review in the Circuit Court for the State of Oregon in Multnomah County, arguing among other things that they will be financially harmed by the existence of suction dredge mining. NEDC argues they will lose credibility with future members and donors and suffer economic loss if suction dredge mining is not stopped.
To date, many briefs have been exchanged regarding such issues as changes of venue, intervention, standing, and even what judge will hear the case or cases if they are not all consolidated. (It is interesting to note that the first two judges in Multnomah County had to recuse themselves for past connections with NEDC—one was even a past president. Hopefully, by the end of January, these issues will be worked out and a hearing will be set sometime this spring.
We Need Your Help
All this litigation will, one way or the other, greatly affect all future in-stream, small-scale mining in Oregon and possibly beyond, and will cost thousands of additional dollars in legal fees.
We are requesting donations to our Legal Fund. To make this easier for you, EOMA and WMD will be holding a series of drawings beginning with the 1st preliminary drawing at the 2011 GPAA Gold Show in Salem, Oregon. The Grand Prize in the Salem drawing will be one ounce of gold nugget jewelry, including an 18.4 dwt. nugget necklace with gold nugget earrings.
Furthermore, all entries in the preliminary drawing will be placed in the drum for our Final Drawing to be held at the 2012 GPAA Gold Show in Salem with a Grand Prize of one-half pound (troy) of gold!! Also to be given away: New 2009 Lambretta Motor Scooter; free gold mining adventure trips to “Wine Camp”; and many other great prizes.
Entry Coupons are available for each donation of $5.00, or Six for $25.00. Donations should be sent to:
PO Box 1574
Cave Junction, OR 97523.
Please include your name, address, age (must be over 18 yrs.), phone, and email (optional), & SASE if you want a receipt. Need not be present to win.
For more information on the litigation and the big 1/2-pound of gold drawing, please write us at the address above, or visit us at: www.eoma.org or www.waldominingdistrict.org
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.
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Besides the EPA issue, our major priority is to work on the proposed amendment to the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (S 145), a bill proposed in the Senate by US Senator Dean Heller (R-Nevada).
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