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California Moves to Close Suction Dredge Mining Loophole


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By: Center for Biological Diversity

SACRAMENTO, Calif. June 7, 2013 - In response to an emergency request from a coalition of tribal, environmental and fisheries groups, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed emergency rules today to crack down on an upsurge of unregulated suction dredge mining in the state. The environmentally harmful mining process has been banned in California since 2009, but early in 2013 miners began making equipment modifications to suction dredges to exploit a perceived "loophole" in the ban. Today's proposed regulations would close the loophole to better protect the environment, water quality and cultural resources from the toxic effects of suction dredge mining.

"The mining community is evading the will of the courts and the California legislature, both of which placed a moratorium on dredge mining until regulations that protect the environment can be developed," said Leaf Hillman, director of Karuk Department of Natural Resources. "What the miners are doing now is an overt effort to ignore the spirit of the law, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is doing the right thing by clarifying the legal definition of a suction dredge."

Suction dredge mining uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. California law currently prohibits "any vacuum or suction dredge equipment" from being used in California waterways. But because narrow state rules previously defined a suction dredge as a hose, motor and sluice box, miners are simply removing the sluice box — an alteration that leaves dredge spoils containing highly toxic mercury piling up along waterways. The sluice box is one of several methods to separate gold from dredge spoils.

"Suction dredge mining in any form pollutes our waterways with toxic mercury and destroys sensitive wildlife habitat," said Jonathan Evans with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Californians won't tolerate this shameless destruction of our natural heritage, which cynically undermines the intent of the law."

Unregulated suction dredge mining harms important cultural resources and state water supplies. It also destroys sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead trout, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds. The Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board urged a complete ban on suction dredge mining because of its significant impacts to water quality and wildlife from mercury pollution; the California Native American Heritage Commission has condemned suction dredge mining's impacts on priceless tribal and archeological resources.

"This is not the lawless Wild West," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "There is no miners' ‘right' to pollute the public's waters, no ‘right' to destroy salmon habitat and salmon fishing industry jobs, no ‘right' for gold miners to suction up stream beds with no limits. The idea that they can dodge all state water and fisheries protection regulations with semantic tricks like this is ridiculous."

The coalition that submitted the formal rulemaking petition includes the Center for Biological Diversity, the Karuk tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Friends of the River, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Foothills Anglers Association, North Fork American River Alliance, Upper American River Foundation, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, Environmental Law Foundation and Klamath Riverkeeper. The coalition is represented by Lynne Saxton of Saxton & Associates, a water-quality and toxics-enforcement law firm.

Background

Suction dredge mining has a history of controversy. California courts have repeatedly confirmed that it violates state laws and poses threats to wildlife, and the state government has placed a moratorium on the destructive practice. Last year California Gov. Jerry Brown continued a moratorium initiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on suction dredge mining until the state develops regulations that pay for the program and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources. Regulations adopted by state wildlife officials earlier in 2012 failed to meet these legislative requirements.

In March 2013 a coalition including environmental organizations, fishermen and the Karuk tribe submitted a formal petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife asking the agency to close a loophole that allows recreational miners to return to suction dredging by making equipment modifications that sidestep state law and worsen impacts to the environment. When state wildlife officials denied the March request the coalition filed an emergency request on May 28, 2013 to close the loophole, which prompted the current regulatory reform.

The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies: It damages habitat for sensitive, threatened and endangered fish and frogs, and releases toxic mercury plumes left over from the Gold Rush into waterways.

Environmental analysis by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife identified several of the impacts:

- Mobilizes and discharges toxic levels of mercury, harming drinking-water quality and potentially poisoning fish and wildlife;
- Harms fish, amphibians and songbirds by disrupting habitat;
- Causes substantial adverse changes statewide in American Indian cultural and historical resources.

To watch video of recent illegal suction dredge mining click here.

The Karuk Tribe is the second largest federally recognized Indian Tribe in California. The Karuk have been in conflict with gold miners since 1850. Karuk territory is along the middle Klamath and Salmon Rivers.
www.karuk.us

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
www.biologicaldiversity.org

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations is trade association of commercial fishermen on the west coast dedicated to assuring the rights of individual fishermen and fighting for the long-term survival of commercial fishing as a productive livelihood and way of life.
www.pcffa.org

 

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