Operating out of a used travel trailer as his home, with a borrowed typewriter and legal books recovered from the county dump, Miner Keith Walker put together the legal case which may just overturn the suction dredging ban.
Walker's petition joined the ongoing battle between the State and environmentalists and gold miners. What began as a skirmish on the Klamath River has developed into a full war between the two sides with cases spread between trial courts, appeals courts, the California Supreme Court and the Federal Appeals Court.
In a field thick with challenges to the suction dredging ban Walker's suit stands alone. Walker has filed a suit claiming the method in which the dredging bans were passed violates the state constitution, and some believe he is right.
Walker's case which was scheduled for hearing in January 2016 has been stayed pending the outcome of the Rinehart California Supreme Court case, but the ongoing legal costs have prevented Walker from pushing for a faster hearing. As Walker states, "If I'm right, then the entire dredging ban will be struck down, this should be the first case the judge hears, not the last."
Walker is referring to the Miner's win in the trial and appeals court over the issue of federal preemption. Walker contends if his case had been heard first we never would have required a hearing on preemption.
At the core of Walker's argument is a requirement in the California Constitution that a bill pertains to a single subject, and it may not be lumped in with numerous unrelated bills. The State responds the bill was part of the annual budget, but Walker disagrees, "Not one dime was ever allocated to the project and the subject had nothing to do with the budget, but everything to do with banning dredges."
While some call Walker's case futile, he disagrees. "Somebody has to fight. I think folks sitting at home don't realize what you go through to challenge the State and these environmental groups. They'll take very last dollar you have. When the politicians are in bed with the environmentalists everybody loses."
Walker continued, "We've been suction dredging for over sixty years. This is how I make my living and the state has presented not a shred of evidence what I'm doing in any way harms the environment."
The State and environmental groups dismiss vacuum gold mining, such as used by Walker, as merely a hobby but Walker disagrees, "I make $11 an hour working at the county landfill. I could earn a year's salary in one month of mining. It was the majority of my income and they took that from me without so much as a hearing. The legislature may have passed these unlawful bills, but the environmentalists wrote it.
Walker is raising his 14 year old daughter as a single paren. His wife passed away two years ago. "I'd like to send her to college," Walker said, "but that's not going to happen on $11 an hour. I'm doing the best I can but gold mining was how I made a living. Not taking other people's trash at the dump."
"I think it's easy for the environmentalists to dismiss guys like Walker." Said Craig Lindsay, president of the Western Mining Alliance. "The environmentalists have been effective at shaping their message. Unsaid is vacuum dredging was the only project in the state actually removing mercury from the watershed."
The litigation is now entering its eight year. After a string of wins by the miners on constitutional grounds the environmentalist dropped their lawsuits and instead sought relief in the form of yet more legislation meant to regulate mining to death. In January 2016 Senate Bill 637 went into effect which requires multiple permits and year long processes to use even the smallest of suction dredges on federal mining claims.
Miners contend the 1,300 page environmental impact report which started the dredging ban was based on deliberately falsified data meant to mislead the public and lawmakers. They point to over twenty reports which show suction dredges leave no lasting impact and a previous environmental impact conducted in 1994 thoroughly evaluated the effects of suction dredging and endangered species.
The 2012 environmental study was prompted by a lawsuit by environmental groups which began in 2005 demanding additional studies be conducted in rivers where salmon spawned. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife delayed the study until a second court order demanded they comply. The court order required a study of three specific salmon bearing rivers: the Scott, Salmon and Klamath in northwest California. The Department reopened the enire state to a new study claiming they had additional information.
In recent court filings the miners rebuffed the State's claims by showing not a single report or effect the State cites provided any new information which hadn't already been evaluated in 1994. Judge Gilbert Ochoa stayed all the litigation pending the resolution of the miner's Supreme Court case which would decide whether a ban on dredging violated federal laws.
The conflict between miners and environmentalists is centered on two issues: salmon and mercury. With environmentalists claiming suction dredges harm salmon and release mercury supposedly trapped in sediment.
The miners counter not a single salmon has ever been killed by a dredger, but each year Indian tribes are allowed to kill up to half a million of these endangered species and sell them commercially. They also point to collusion between environmental groups and government researchers which withheld critical data related to mercury which showed no linkage between mining and mercury levels. The miners contend mercury levels in gold mining rivers have increased since the dredging ban according to data provided by the US Geological Survey.
Lindsay explained the relationship between mercury levels and gold dredging. "Mercury in the higher level streams is removed by gold dredgers before it can travel to lower lying areas where it can convert to a harmful form. The contention by the environmentalists that dredges somehow produce this mercury is patently false. We've removed over two tons of mercury over the past twenty years while all the environmental projects combined amount to a few grams. The State claims we have removed insignificant amounts of mercury, but we doubt it would be insignifican if we were proposing to put that much back into the river.
The mercury issue ultimatley is linked to money. Big money in the form of taxpayer grants. So is mercury a problem in gold mining country?
Dr. Nicholas Ralston, the country's leading biological mercury researcher doesn't think so. "No," he emphatically stated. "Mercury is only harmful if it exceeds our dietary selenium intakes. We've found the amount of mercury people are exposed to has little influence in recent epidemiological studies...Unless people are eating seafoods with unusually high mercury content and poor selenium content, mercury exposures never come close to matching the amount of selenium in most people's diets. That's why we haven't seen the harmful effect many predicted we should see from eating increased amounts of fish."
Until recently the California Department of Occupational Health Hazard Assessment had a notice stating no person in California had ever been sickened from eating sport fish tainted with mercury.
"I think we need to be careful about emotional arguments based on rhetoric. It's a strong emotionl argument people will be harmed by fish containing mercury, but it's just not true. It may be good for obtaining grant money, but it's not the truth.
Meanwhile miners like Keith Walker are casulaties in a an environmental group led effort to destroy the last of the California gold miners. The miners ask a simple question. If the equipment they use harms the environment then where's the proof? To date the State has been unable to point to any lasting effects from the use of suction gold dredges. Miners contend after sixty years of use there should be some evidence of harm, but the State has been unable to produce this evidence.
Standing on the side of the road with a broken water pump Walker lamented, "I feel like I'm in the middle of a fight between the far right and the far left. I just want to return to mining. There's no salmon within fifty miles of me. I wish they'd just leave it alone."