Updates on other CA 2012 mining legislation

In addition to our successful advocacy for suction dredge mining reform, The Sierra Fund has been working on two mining-related bills introduced in the current CA legislative session:

  • SB 143 (Rubio), which we support, would clarify the definition of an “idle” mine. This bill was introduced at the request of The Sierra Fund in response to our concerns about a bill on the same issue that passed last year. This bill passed out of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee last week on July 2.
  • AB 1609 (Lara), which we oppose, would undermine incentives for gravel operations to be in compliance with state mining law. The Sierra Fund, after meeting with mining industry representatives, was successful in getting this bill pulled in the last week of June to allow for more discussion.

Senate Bill 143 (Rubio) is an act to amend the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) regarding mines that are considered “idle.”

This bill builds on the SMARA regulations that passed last year by addressing the number of times a mine can file for and receive an extension of their “idle” status. Legislation on this point passed last year did not cap the number of extensions that a mine can file, leaving the possibility open that an idled mine could apply for unlimited number of extensions and remain idle for many, many years without being required to begin reclamation activities.

SB 143 limits the number of times that a mine can apply for extending their “interim management plan” or “idle status” for a total of two extensions. This will allow companies to idle their operation for an interim period while market demand is low and at the same time ensure that an idled mine will begin remediation on a reasonable timeframe.

The Sierra Fund’s Mining Initiative has documented the many devastating impacts of legacy mining practices that continue to threaten our state’s water and air quality. The mining reclamation standards of current law have only begun to help remediate the historic legacy of abandoned mines. As the price of gold goes through the roof and pressure to re-open abandoned mines in the state increases we need to make sure those mistakes from the past are not repeated.

Assembly Bill 1609 (Lara) would amend the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) to allow gravel mining operations to appeal removal crom the list of approved businesses that can sell gravel products to the state of California when they have found to be violating this important state law.  The Sierra Fund believes the net effect of AB 1609 will be to put mining operations that are complying with SMARA at a competitive disadvantage if violators are allowed to continue doing business with state agencies like Caltrans.

Gravel operations that have been given notice that they are violating SMARA by the lead agency (usually a County) already have a well-established appeal process to the State Mining and Geology Board if they feel that they have been unfairly cited for a violation. If they are found to be out of compliance with SMARA after this appeal it is simply a ministerial action to remove them from the “3098” list of mining operations that are allowed to sell gravel to the state. In fact, because the list is only published quarterly, mining operations already have three months to bring their operation into compliance before being removed from the list.

AB 1609 allows gravel operators to delay removal from this list, and requires the Department of Conservation and the Mining Board to expend resources to hear their appeal regarding what is currently a ministerial action. The Assembly Appropriations committee bill analysis indicates that this could cost the Department $300,000 a year or more for hearing appeals. With the state facing a multi-billion dollar budget crisis, the use of funds for a redundant appeals process is an inappropriate use of scarce resources.

The Sierra Fund is also concerned that AB 1609 undermines local county authority to hold gravel operations accountable when they fail to correct violations of SMARA.

In our view, AB 1609 provides an opportunity for a gravel operation to misuse due process to inappropriately delay compliance with SMARA. We cannot allow the only real incentive a gravel operator has to conform to SMARA to be watered down, especially given that there is no evidence that there is a problem that needs to be resolved.