USA: California Closes Suction Dredging Loophole

In response to an emergency request from a coalition of tribal, conservation and fisheries groups, California officials have closed a loophole in the state’s suction dredge mining ban.

The move will protect water quality, wildlife and fisheries from destructive forms of recreational mining. Suction dredging is an environmentally harmful mining practice has been banned in California since 2009, but since early this spring miners have been making equipment modifications to suction dredges to exploit what they perceived as a “loophole” in the ban.

“We are very pleased with California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision to act quickly,” said Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe. “This decision ensures that California’s water quality, fisheries and cultural sites will be protected from suction dredges and similar forms of mechanized recreational mining.”

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 the state’s waterways, but because narrow 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. Under the new regulation, the use of any vacuum or suction dredge equipment is defined broadly as the use of a suction system to vacuum material from a river, stream or lake for the extraction of minerals.

“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. “This decision will make our rivers safer for wildlife, fisheries and our families.”

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.

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, July 2, 2013

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