Local Chester businessman Jeff Marrs has mined for gold the better part of 25 years in the unincorporated area of Seneca in Plumas County.
He isn’t necessarily trying to strike it rich, he said, but he would at least like the state to respect his right to work his gold claims without unwarranted governmental interference.
Marrs said he’s concerned that the mining laws that were fought for and finally passed through the General Mining Act of 1872 authorizing prospecting and mining for economic minerals, such as gold, platinum and silver on federal public lands are today being circumvented.
He said that state senate bill SB 637 authored by prior California State Senator Ted Gaines in 2015 did two things.
First, it mandated that the California State Resources Water Quality Control Board, charged with water quality, rights regulation and watershed management, do a study on suction dredge mining, and either permit its use or explain why it won’t be allowed.
The statute was vaguely written, Marrs alleged, giving the water board wide latitude in how it could define the law.
California has been especially stringent in recent years on what machinery can legally be used to mine for gold in the state’s waterways.
Marrs said a statewide moratorium was passed in 2009 when California prohibited the use of suction dredges to recover gold in streams, but after a long legal battle, must now issue suction dredge permits, expected to be issued sometime in 2020.
“It was supposedly the method of suction dredging that they were going after,” he explained, when they passed the edict 10 years ago barring its use, “because it was the state’s contention that the use of such equipment would stir up mercury that was used as an amalgam, the majority of which was present since the Gold Rush” that purportedly could have a negative environmental impact when the element is removed from the gold.
“They professed that if the mercury was disturbed by suction dredging it would permeate the surroundings” in a deleterious manner.
He recounted that, “The Water Board scientists and engineers found conclusively that the effects of suction dredging had no ill effects” with regards to mercury contamination to the surrounding land.
“There’s never been a person poisoned by mercury in the United States from a fish they caught,” Marrs claimed. “It’s never happened,” adding that miners know not to throw the toxic substance back into the water.
Plus he mentioned that no fish have ever been killed by suction dredging.
The other part of the bill was written to redefine what a suction dredge is, he continued. “But what has happened is that the water board under SB 637 has declared that any mechanized or motorized equipment that assists in the removal or processing of material is now defined as a ‘suction dredge,’” which encompasses quite a number of devices used in any mining operation.
“Would anyone consider a posthole digger, wheelbarrow, generator or non-motorized sluice box to be suction dredges?” Marrs asked rhetorically. “Of course not.”
Marrs claimed that in fact suction dredging is beneficial to fish by building new spawning beds in the river channel. “But also the dredging removes 98 percent of the mercury and other heavy metals from the water that it processes” in the quest for gold.
“Nevertheless, the water board has concluded — despite its own scientific studies that suction dredge mining has minimal negative consequences — that it would not adhere to its own findings” in deciding what equipment is permissible under its definition of what a suction dredge is.
The American Mining Rights Association, a nonprofit organization with an office in Coulterville, advocates for the right to prospect and mine on public lands, had a meeting with the water board on May 30, he said, with questions and answers posted on its website, “concluding that the board still thinks mercury is a serious issue in mining operations.”
The water board stated to the AMRA that its scientists are merely staff and don’t make the final decisions. Still, they said they would accept applications and issue permits, but would nevertheless place obstacles in the way to make it nearly impossible for mining operations to continue, Marrs said.
“They’ll issue new permits,” he noted with some skepticism, “but it has been suggested that there is a possibility that new permitting will not be issued anywhere in the state where there is a history of mining. … That’s almost every river and creek located in California!” which narrows down considerably where gold can be prospected, including his own claim in Seneca, he noted.
After the water board prohibited gold prospecting using a suction dredge because of its concerns that motorized equipment might be detrimental to the environment, Marrs and his daughter devised a method using old mining techniques from the days of the Gold Rush, and built a three-story high, non-motorized derrick on one of their claims featuring a 30-foot boom that could lift 10,000 pounds; but to no avail as the water board soon claimed the device was a “suction dredge” and prohibited its use despite the system being environmentally friendly, he asserted.
In addition, “We wanted to dive into the river using diving gear and use buckets and shovels to dig for gold, which we planned to process through a water-powered sluice box, processing just two buckets of dirt two days a week.
He said he had obtained the necessary permits from the Forest Service and the Department of Fish & Wildlife last year allowing him to proceed. But his permit from Fish & Wildlife was subsequently withdrawn after the water board recommended that the agency take back his permitting, which they did.
Marrs next got hold of a representative of the water board who confirmed to him that his derrick had been declared to be a suction dredge and could not be used.
He was given two options, to withdraw and be charged $150 an hour for all the work done on his application over the past two years, then resubmit an application to the Department of Fish & Wildlife and have them issue a new streambed alteration permit — that was previously nullified after the Water Board imposed its restrictions.
In other words, “reapply and the Water Board would consider issuing a 401 Certification” allowing his mining operation to qualify — even after the Board had denied his application for certification to begin with.
“So they’re telling me if I can get what Fish & Wildlife just took away from me on the Water Board’s recommendation, they might provide me the certification I need to move forward on my gold claim,” which he believed they have no intention of doing.
The other option he said was not to withdraw his application. “But the Water Board said I would never get a certification on my claim ever again,” said Marrs.
Marrs said he was baffled by the Catch 22 and contacted the American Mining Rights Association in July, and to his surprise was informed that this is happening to a lot of miners.
“People have literally been cited for using generators on their claims. … One gentleman was cited for driving his truck to a tributary with some equipment — consisting of a non-motorized sluice box. It was alleged that the vehicle itself was a suction dredge and it was confiscated.”
While prospectors await further clarification of the law, the water board has made it difficult to proceed.
Marrs said he considers it a kind of assault on individual liberties regarding the attempt by the water board to thwart mining in the state of California.
Furthermore, he said additional fees have now been attached to the filing process, increasing the cost to record gold claims.
There have been road closures as well, he added, making it harder to access public lands, including access to gold claims.
Walk for Liberty
Marrs said in response to over regulation, the American Mining Rights Association (www.americanminingrights.com) sponsored a “Walk for Liberty,” which began Aug. 13, and involves a 300-mile trek along the “gold corridor” starting from the town of Vinton in Plumas County and ending in the town of Oakhurst on Aug. 25.
Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood was at the start of the walk to show his support, said Marrs.
“Along the way, those who are marching plan to talk to the various communities about the devastating effect of the moratorium and unnecessary regulations over the last decade, not only for gold miners but for fishermen, hikers, loggers, ranchers, off-roaders and others.”
Activists plan to gather at the Sacramento Capitol building Aug. 27 to have their voices heard and to protest what is perceived to be laws antithetical to individual’s sense of freedom and the attack on their rights as citizens.
Marrs shared a letter of support from Plumas County District 3 Supervisor Sherrie Thrall expressing her backing of the Walk for Liberty march.
Quoting, she said, “For too long our rights to use our public lands have been abrogated by agencies bent on denying access. It is only when good citizens are willing to take action that there is hope for the future.”
Importantly, Marrs pointed out that, “My mining claim is a federal grant that I pay taxes on, which entitles me to the minerals I find there.”
Gold mining is California’s founding industry, Marrs noted. “For me it’s not just a hobby.”
After trying to skirt the law in its attempt to prevent people from operating their mining claims, Marrs said he expects that a legal challenge will be filed against the water board to force it to assign permits allowing suction dredging as it did before the moratorium was in place.