USA: California Moves to Close Suction Dredge Mining Loophole

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 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.

Press Release, June 10, 2013

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