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Miner's News

Current Status of Suction Gold Dredging in California

July 29, 2009

12-10-10 UPDATE: Check the most current information on suction gold dredging here

by Scott Harn, Editor
ICMJ’s Prospecting and Mining Journal

Leeon Hillman; Craig Tucker; David Bitts; et. al., v. California Department of Fish and Game

The lawsuit claimed that the State cannot use taxpayer funds to run the suction dredging program because the program was not in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Judge Roesch ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on July 9, 2009. His order stated that the California Department of Fish & Game was barred from using General Fund money to administer the suction dredge program.

Fish & Game countered that General Fund money was not being utilized to run the program. They sent a letter to Judge Roesch requesting clarification and continued issuing suction dredge permits.

On Monday, July 27, a hearing was held in Alameda County Superior Court to clarify Judge Roesch's order. Roesch ordered the State to stop issuing permits.

Fish & Game stopped issuing suction dredge permits following Judge Roesch's order on July 27.

SB 670: The bill to halt suction dredging permits until a new EIR is completed
We recently learned the bill was not delivered to the governor's desk until 11:30am on July 27, 2009 by the legislature. He has 12 days to sign or veto the bill, or he can let the 12 days elapse and the bill will become law.

A concerted effort has been made to educate staff in the governor's office as to how this bill would impact families, small businesses and industries in the State. Staff has also been advised of the Takings issues involved.

There is Some Good News
Miners in California, and those who benefit from their endeavors, are more united than they have been in years. Over 6,000 comments from concerned miners, businesses and industry were hand-delivered to the governor's office. This does not include comments that were sent directly to the governor.

A revised Economic Impact Report was completed and submitted to the governor, which clearly demonstrates that suction gold dredgers are major contributors to the California economy. The report documents verifiable contributions of $65.46 million to the State economy in 2008. The report lists additional estimated economic impacts that could push the total well above $100 million.

Several retired government scientists with experience in the fields of biology, fisheries management and water have stepped forward to debunk the claims that suction gold dredging is harmful to fish and their habitat.

We already mentioned Joseph C. Greene in last month’s issue. He’s a retired US EPA research biologist with 30 years experience. After reviewing the studies available on suction gold dredging and the environment, he refuted claims that dredging is harmful and concluded that the dispute has little to do with harm to endangered fish but rather is centered on power and control of California’s waterways.

Claudia Wise is a former physical scientist/chemist who retired in 2006 after 32 years of service with EPA. Wise has relevant experience with scientific projects involving fish toxicology, salmon restoration, urban fish populations, water temperature and global climate change on her resumé.

Here are a few excerpts from Wise’s letter to Governor Schwarzenegger:
  • Dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles, some commissioned by the USEPA, USGS, CDFG, Corp of Engineers, and many more from universities support suction dredging as having de minimis effects or no significant effect on the environment they are used in.
  • California Department of Fish and Game already regulates the miners out of the waterways during important life events for the salmon.  That includes during spawning season when redds are present.
  • It is well known that suction dredging causes little or no environmental harm to fish and biota; what many overlook are the many benefits that dredging provides such as increased spawning gravels, dredge made refugia, and yes, mercury remediation to name a few.
  • I have been involved in temperature surveys on the Klamath River in California in regards to suction dredge activity and existing conditions of refugia. We have found specified natural refugia to be no better in many cases to that of dredge made refugia. 
  • Dredge holes can provide a holding place for fish as they pass up the waterway on their migration path to and from the ocean providing a place to get out of the faster currents to rest.  Some of these dredge holes may also be cooler due to ground water seepage if the holes are deep enough.  This leads to development of additional areas of needed refugia.
  • The mining community of today is, in my opinion, the only group that is in a position with the technology to help with the removal of lead and mercury at a very economical price to the public.  Any residual mercury remaining after dredging a location is that much less to worry about.
  • In reviewing Humphrey’s (2005) comments regarding possible problems associated with collecting mercury via suction dredging methods, it is right to look to the suction dredge community for help locating hotspots and removing mercury from the river systems.  In my opinion the data provided in the report by Humphrey’s (2005) did not demonstrate any clear conclusions that would prohibit the State from allowing this activity.  On the contrary, in the discussion of results it was stated that a suction dredge in the American River was able to collect 98 percent of the measured mercury processed through the dredge.  The amount of mercury collected may have been higher if the investigators had been using a dredge with the modern jet flare design. Even 98 percent is a huge plus for the environment and it would be irresponsible to not allow mercury to be removed from the rivers and streams whenever it is found.
  • If not collected the mercury is guaranteed to end up farther downstream, and eventually in the delta or the bay, where methylation is a real environmental problem. In my opinion it would be a highly irresponsible management practice to leave a large portion of mercury in the rivers and streams because of unrealistic concerns for the lesser amount moving only a short distance away from an operating dredge.  Most likely if floured the movement of fine mercury would extend no farther than 50-feet off the end of the sluice box.  That would relate to the distance a turbidity plume might extend downstream from a small-scale suction dredge. 
  • However, if the mercury was left in place the next storm event would surely move it downstream closer to, and eventually into, the bay and delta.
  • There was no reason, last year, to sign AB1032 into law and there is no reason to sign Bill 670 into law this year.  I respectfully ask that you not add further to the problems related to increased government regulation where none is warranted.  Please allow California Fish and Game to do their job.  They are already regulating suction dredging adequately to protect fish. The court has ordered California Department of Fish and Game to prove suction dredging creates significant harm before changing the mining regulations. 
  • I respectfully ask that you VETO bill 670.
What's Next
An appeal on the Alameda case is pending. There is a possibility that an appeal could place the decision on hold until the appeal is settled. In the meantime, suction dredgers with permits will continue to operate for the remainder of this dredging season.

The State has begun the process of developing new suction dredge regulations and a new Environmental Impact Report. According to Kirsten Macintyre, communications manager for Fish & Game, public hearings and scoping meetings have been tentatively scheduled. We will provide you with the exact locations and times when available, but here is the proposed schedule:
  • Public Scoping Meetings: Fresno (11/17/09); Sacramento (11/18/09); Redding (11/19/09)
  • Public Hearings: Fresno (9/8/10); Sacramento (9/9/10); Redding (9/10/10)
According to Macintyre, the Notice of Determination and CEQA findings will likely be completed in summer 2011.

A lawsuit against the State has been prepared. It will not be filed until Governor Schwarzenegger makes his decision on SB 670. After discussions with Jerry Hobbs of Public Lands for the People and their attorneys, it was decided that federal court would be the best venue to correct this situation if necessary.

What You Can Do Right Now
1) Send a contribution to Public Lands for the People. They are a non-profit organization and will continue to fight to restore the rights of suction dredgers, but they can only accomplish this task with your support! You can make a contribution by clicking on the Donate link on their website or by mail at:
            c/o Barrett Wetherby
            3700 Santa Carlotta
            La Crescenta, CA 91214

2) Ask Governor Schwarzenegger to put the new EIR on suction dredging on a fast track so suction dredgers can continue to play a substantial role in the California economy. You can send a message to the governor by mail, fax, or email.

  Mail:  Honorable Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
            State Capitol Building
            Sacramento, CA 95814

  Fax:   (916) 558-3160

  Email:  Email Governor Schwarzenegger

We will continue to keep you posted on our website and in our monthly Journal as new developments arise.

Copyright ICMJ & CMJ, Inc. 2009. (Permission granted to link to this document by copying the web address above.)

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