United States: Oregon District Court Finds State's Temporary Ban On Instream Motorized Mining Equipment To Be A Valid State Environmental Regulation And Not Preempted By Federal Law

Joshua Caleb Bohmker, et al. v. State of Oregon, et al., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39163 (D. Or. March 25, 2016). The United States District Court for the District of Oregon upheld a state law placing a temporary ban on the use of motorized equipment for mining in Oregon riverbeds and banks. The state of Oregon passed Senate Bill 838 (SB 838) in August 2013 in response to the "significant risks" motorized mining poses to Oregon's natural resources and the cumulative environmental impacts of motorized mining. The moratorium applies only to the use of motorized mining equipment, and does not ban mining altogether. The court found that SB 838 is a valid regulation and not preempted by federal law.

The plaintiffs—miners, mining associations, and businesses related to the mining industry—filed suit against the state of Oregon claiming that SB 838 is preempted by federal law. The plaintiffs relied on the federal Mining Act of 1872, which provides that "all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States . . . shall be free and open to exploration and purchase." Id. at *4 (citing 30 U.S.C. § 22). The central question in the case was whether a state environmental regulation temporarily banning motorized mining is preempted by federal regulations that make mineral deposits free and open to extraction. Id. at *5.

The court outlined the three types of preemption— express preemption, field preemption, and conflict preemption—and concluded that federal law does not preempt SB 838 in any of these ways. Id. at *15–18. Citing California Coastal Comm'n v. Granite Rock Co., 480 U.S. 572 (1987), the court noted that the federal Mining Act of 1872 does not express any legislative intent regarding how the law should interact with state environmental regulations. Id. at *16. The court further noted that "federal mining laws and environmental regulations do not preempt reasonable state environmental laws that restrict mining activities on federal land." Id. at *17. The court found additional support for its conclusion in other applicable federal regulations, such as the Clean Water Act, which "expressly recognizes and preserves state authority to regulate water pollution." Id. at *16–17.

Next, the district court found SB 838 is a reasonable environmental regulation, rather than a land use law. Id. at *18. Citing Granite Rock, the plaintiffs contended that federal law preempts a state land use law that extends onto federal land and prohibits otherwise lawful mining activities thereon. Id. The district court rejected this argument, noting that while land use planning and environmental regulation could theoretically overlap, they are nevertheless distinct activities capable of differentiation. Specifically, the court noted that land use regulations choose particular uses for land; whereas, environmental regulations merely require that, if the land is used for a particular purpose, that it be used in a way that limits the environmental effects of the use. Id. at *18–19. Based on this reasoning, the court held that SB 838 is not a preempted land use plan because it does not prohibit mining altogether or mandate particular uses of the land. Rather, it regulates the environmental impacts of motorized mining by limiting one particular form of mining in specific areas. Id. at *20. As a result, the district court concluded that SB 838 is a reasonable environmental regulation that is not preempted by federal land use laws.

The court also found that SB 838 is not a ban on mining. Id. at *20–21. The plaintiffs argued that SB 838 constitutes a "complete ban" on mining, and thus, is preempted by federal law. Id. The court rejected this argument, citing the holding of another court within the district that had already addressed the very issue and determined that "a ban on one particular method of mining was not equivalent to a complete ban on mining." Id. at *21–22 (citing Pringle v. Oregon, No. 2:13-CV-00309-SU, 2014 WL 795328 (D. Or. Feb. 25, 2014)).

Finally, the court declined to apply a "commercial impracticability" standard as part of its preemption analysis. Id. at *23–25. Citing People v. Rinehart, 230 Cal. App. 4th 419 (2014), a recent California court of appeal case in which the court held that a California moratorium on suction-dredge permits was potentially preempted by federal law if it rendered development of a mining claim "commercially impractical," the plaintiffs argued that SB 838 rendered mining commercially impractical in Oregon and, thus, was preempted by federal law. In rejecting this argument, the court noted that the Rinehart opinion had been de-published pending review by the California Supreme Court. Id. at *24. The court also was persuaded by an amicus brief submitted to the California Supreme Court, which argued that federal preemption of a state environmental regulation should not turn on the cost to an individual miner. Id. The court concluded that nothing in the Mining Act or its applicable federal regulations "makes the cost or practicability of mineral extraction a factor in whether or not a state environmental law is preempted." Id. at *25 For these reasons, the district court concluded that Oregon's temporary ban on motorized mining is not preempted by federal law. Id. at *26.

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