The Sierra Fund sponsors new CA Mining Law Reform Bill

California Senator Fran Pavley has introduced the Surface Mining Act Reform of 2014 (SB 1270) with a goal of reforming the California Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) to better serve industry, local governments, state government, and the public.

The Sierra Fund, a regional nonprofit based in Nevada City, is the sponsor of this bill. “This bill helps to improve the ability of the state and local governments to enforce mining reclamation – a crucial issue in the historic Gold Country where huge 19th century mining operations left behind a toxic legacy that has yet to be cleaned up,” noted CEO Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin.

The Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975 is the law that governs and regulates California’s interest in surface mining.  Under this law, local governments have the primary responsibility for approving land use permits for mines, including sand and gravel operations, as well as for approving the reclamation plan and conducting mandated annual inspections.

California is the only state in the nation in which local governments are the exclusive permitting agency for mine location. That tradition is deeply-held in California and the newly proposed bill (SB 1270) does not propose a change in that lead agency.

The primary purpose of SB 1270 is to ensure compliance with the existing mining regulations. The State has a legitimate legal interest in ensuring that mines have adequate reclamation plans, financial surety documents to cover the costs of reclamation, and other aspects of SMARA compliance, but currently has limited to no authority to ensure enforcement of SMARA.

In recent years, the State has documented inconsistent enforcement of SMARA around California. Some local governments have not been conducting required annual inspections. These inspections are the very foundation of SMARA and are the basis for ensuring that appropriate updates are made to reclamation plans and financial assurances when necessary.

“Many small counties in California do not have the capacity or expertise to provide certain kinds of services such as performing annual inspections of mines.  These mining inspections help identify mines that have stopped operation and need either to begin reclamation or to develop an Interim Management Plan,” Martin stated.  “We believe that this bill will bring new resources to help ensure that the state’s rules are followed while still leaving land use decisions up to the Counties.”

This bill would:

  • Shift the responsibility for inspections to the State;
  • Establish a schedule to remediate any violations;
  • Require certification of reclamation plans by a qualified geologist or engineer;
  • Remove the cap on fees (currently $4,000) and establish a minimum fee of $1,000; and
  • Establish a Division of Mines headed by a State Mine Inspector.

Under SB 1270 local governments that no longer wish to administer their responsibilities under SMARA (except for local land use control) would be able to relinquish that role to the state voluntarily, and also to reclaim that role in the future.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which Senator Pavely chairs.  Stay tuned for information on when this bill will be heard by the Committee.