The state of California has offered to pay $350,000 to a coalition of environmental groups, including the Karuk Tribe and Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, to drop a lawsuit over the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s 2012 suction dredge mining regulations,according to Public Lands for the People.
The case centers around what has been determined to be a flawed study under the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires state and local agencies to identify significant environmental impacts and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible. The court battle, known in mining circles as the CEQA case, involves two separate lawsuits:
• The Karuk Tribe, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Law Foundation, Pacific Federation of Fisherman’s Associations and Friends of the River allege that the regulations adopted in March 2012 were not developed in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act, fail to mitigate identified impacts and are inconsistent with existing state law. The case was filed April 3, 2012 in Alameda County Superior Court.
• Meanwhile, Public Lands for the People also sued the state, alleging that the Subsequent Environmental Impact Report, which was based on reports from Horizon Water and Environment, a consulting firm based in Oakland, Calif., was improperly and unlawfully conducted and therefore rendered skewed, unscientific findings.
“The 2012 dredging regulations were based on bad science from a deeply flawed environmental report,” said PLP President Walt Wegner. “The SEIR results were used to prop up the case for far more restrictive suction dredge mining regulations because of pressure from these environmental groups.”
The SEIR study claims that suction dredge mining has several “potentially significant impacts” on the environment, even though all previous studies had concluded that dredging causes a “less than significant impact,” Wegner said.
“How does this drastic change in study results happen overnight? The study is bogus and heavily influenced by politics — not science,” said Wegner. “And, now after years of battling the CEQA case, these environmental groups have decided to take the money and run, leaving California taxpayers on the hook for $350,000.”
PLP Attorney James Buchal said it’s a shame that state taxpayers will be stuck with the tab, again.
“It is regrettable that once again the state of California has decided to shovel hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to entities working to cripple the state’s natural resource economy. To make matters worse, the state agreed to pay that money and allow the tribe and its allies to dismiss their claims without prejudice, meaning they could bring them all over again for a second payoff,” Buchal said. “The Karuks are done; they’ve settled. The state and the tribe have agreed to it, and at this point I think it’s just a pro forma approval by the judge, and the money will be paid.”
PLP’s CEQA case is expected to proceed Jan. 20 in San Bernardino County Superior Court.
“With the tribe dismissing its claims, that leaves only the miners claiming that the environmental analysis of the 2012 regulations was defective. But, what gives this a sort of surreal and Kafkaesque quality is that back in January the judge ruled that the regulations are unconstitutional anyway,” Buchal said, referring to another dredging case heard by California Superior Court Judge Gilbert Ochoa.
Ochoa ruled in January 2015 that the federal Mining Law of 1872 preempts the state ban on dredging under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that federal law supersedes state law. The ruling was deemed a win for miners, however the state continues to cite dredgers and has refused to issue dredging permits to miners.
Clark Pearson, northern director for PLP, said the CEQA case settlement wreaks of cronyism and corruption between the state and environmental groups.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” Pearson said. “This was a sweetheart lawsuit … so basically they were paid off to drop the case. Do you think the same offer will be made to miners? I highly doubt it. No offer has been made to us, and we are the prevailing party. We should be entitled to attorney fees.”
Suction dredge mining has been banned since 2009 in what began as a two-year moratorium imposed under Senate Bill 670, and extended under various legislation.
“That so-called moratorium has become a de facto ban, which is unconstitutional—and small-scale suction dredge miners are paying the price,” Wegner said. “The state has crippled the local economies of many mining towns in California, and is actually making the mercury problem worse. Contrary to the propaganda from some environmental groups that it may harm fish, dredging not only removes mercury and lead from California streams and rivers but it cleans hard-packed, silt-covered gravels that salmon and other fish need to spawn, and it also improves fish habitat by creating refugia.”
Friendly lawsuits, or sue-and-settle cases, have been the subject of investigations in Washington, D.C. In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity is listed as fourth on the list of most frequent environmental group plaintiffs in sue-and-settle cases in a 54-page report, “Sue and Settle, Regulating Behind Closed Doors,” published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2013.
In 2012, Rosemont Mine Senior Vice President James A. Sturgess complained that the Center for Biological Diversity “has a history of gaining millions of our federal tax dollars through intimidation and litigation. Sturgess cited an interview in which, Kieran Suckling, founder of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said, “New injunctions, new species listings and new bad press take a terrible toll… Psychological warfare is a very underappreciated aspect of environmental campaigning.”