USA: Court Closes Suction Dredging Loophole in Siskiyou County

A California court has once again ruled that all forms of suction dredge mining are banned throughout California, rejecting a temporary restraining order on the ban in Siskiyou County.

In recent weeks miners had been exploiting a loophole in a ban on the destructive mining practice to continue mining on the Klamath, Salmon and other rivers in Siskiyou County. A ban on suction dredge mining was enacted by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2009 and affirmed in 2012 by Gov. Brown.

“No matter what you call it, if it sucks like a dredge and spews like a dredge, it’s a suction dredge,” said Jonathan Evans, toxics and endangered species campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Suction dredge mining in any form pollutes our waterways with toxic mercury, destroys sensitive wildlife habitat, contaminates our fisheries, and harms important cultural resources.”

Suction dredge mining uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. California law prohibits “any vacuum or suction dredge equipment” from being used in the state’s waterways, but because narrow rules previously defined a suction dredge as a “hose, motor and sluice box,” miners had simply removed the sluice box to try to skirt that prohibition.

“The court’s ruling gives some certainty statewide instead of trying to carve out exceptions for one county,” said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “The ruling is clear — suction dredging in any form is prohibited.”

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 on 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.

Background

Suction dredging is an environmentally harmful mining practice banned in California since 2009. When miners began making equipment modifications to suction dredges in late 2012 to exploit what they perceived as a “loophole” in the ban, 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 that loophole. On June 28 California officials closed a loophole that had allowed suction dredge miners to continue using a suction dredge without a sluice box.

While the ban took effect statewide, a temporary restraining order issued by Siskiyou County Superior Court Judge Karen Dixon on July 3 prohibited California Fish and Wildlife wardens from enforcing the ban in Siskiyou County. A group of suction dredge miners calling themselves the New 49ers filed a lawsuit to obtain a temporary restraining order in Siskiyou County to exploit a legal technicality to continue mining in that county. Monday’s ruling by San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Gilbert Ochoa suspended that temporary restraining order for Siskiyou County. Suction dredge mining is once again banned throughout all of California.

The coalition taking legal action to protect California waterways from suction dredge mining 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.

Press Release, July 17, 2013

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