USA: Environmental Groups Battle Suction Dredging in California’s Rivers
A coalition including environmental organizations, fishermen and the Karuk tribe filed a lawsuit Monday to block newly approved regulations for controversial suction dredge mining.
The program would increase river mining and pollution in California’s waterways once a current moratorium on the practice expires in 2016; coalition members are concerned about the health of California rivers and commercially valuable salmon fisheries.
“Until the moratorium was passed, gold miners were still allowed to destroy our rivers, our fisheries and our culture,” said Leaf Hillman of the Karuk tribe. “Fish and Game will let them resume the destruction in 2016 unless the new regulations are dramatically improved.”
Suction dredge mining uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. The Department of Fish and Game’s March 16 decision would allow suction dredge mining throughout California in areas that are sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead trout, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds.
“Suction dredge mining is a net loser for the state of California: It pollutes our waterways, hurts endangered fish and wildlife, damages cultural resources and wastes taxpayer money,” said Jonathan Evans, toxics and endangered species campaign director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The agency’s new regulations avoid addressing significant water-quality, wildlife and cultural impacts of mining. The Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board urged a complete ban on suction dredge mining because of the significant impacts to water quality and wildlife from mercury pollution; the California Native American Heritage Commission has also condemned suction dredge mining’s impacts on priceless tribal and archeological resources.
“These regulations will give recreational suction dredgers a license to pollute some of the most scenic and ecologically sensitive rivers in California,” said Steve Evans of Friends of the River.
The issue has implications for the economy as well as the environment. “For our members, this is about protecting jobs and family-owned businesses which rely on healthy salmon fisheries,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the West Coast’s largest trade association of commercial fishing families, which is a plaintiff in the case. “Under these new regulations, suction dredge mining will continue to harm fisheries, continue to stir up toxic mercury which is a human health hazard and continue degrading California’s rivers at taxpayer expense. This makes no sense.”
Adding insult to injury, a legislative analysis found that the suction dredge mining program has cost the state more money than it earns; it lost close to $1 million in 2009 alone — all to benefit a few thousand hobbyist gold miners.
The case was filed today in Alameda County Superior Court under the California Environmental Quality Act and Fish and Game Code. The coalition filing suit includes the Karuk tribe, Center for Biological Diversity, 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 and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. The coalition is represented by attorneys from the Environmental Law Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Federation of Fisherman’s Associations and Friends of the River.
Dredging Today Staff, April 4, 2012; Image: dfg