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Suction gold dredging grinds to a halt in California

July 9, 2009

(7-10-2009: Be sure to read the updates provided below.)

An Alameda County Superior Court Judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs today, ordering the state of California to stop issuing suction dredge permits until a new Environmental Impact Report is completed.

Judge Roesch of Alameda County Superior Court, California, issued his ruling in Leeon Hillman; Craig Tucker; David Bitts; et. al., v. California Department of Fish and Game. Hillman, of the Karuk Tribe in northern California, and friends, sued the DFG to stop the issuance of permits for suction gold dredging in California until the state completes a court ordered Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Public Lands for the People (PLP), along with the New 49'ers and Raymond W. Koons, intervened in this case on behalf of miners.

This latest attack was based on an earlier court case, where Judge Bonnie Sabraw had ordered the state to complete a new EIR in a December 2006 ruling. This was largely based on a sworn statement from a DFG official who claimed that suction dredge mining under current regulations causes deleterious effects on Coho salmon in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon Rivers. Keep in mind that the DFG provided no studies or other evidence to back up these claims. Judge Sabraw allowed suction dredge mining to continue, but ordered the state to complete a new EIR by June 20, 2008.

The state recently hired a contractor to begin the EIR process, but the court-imposed deadline passed over one year ago.

In the new court case, the plaintiffs argued that the state was beyond the deadline and was in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because they failed to adopt new regulations.

The plaintiffs requested a temporary restraining order and a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining the state from expending any general fund money to issue permits or operate the suction dredging program under current regulations. Judge Roech granted this request.

We have not yet received the judge's ruling, but we will post it here when available. It may be true that suction dredge permits already issued will remain valid for this dredging season. The injunction will likely remain in effect until the state of California completes a new EIR and rulemaking, or until it is overturned by another court order.

What's Next
As many of our readers know, mining is a right. It can be reasonably regulated but not prohibited. Public Lands for the People is already preparing a lawsuit to correct this prohibition against suction dredging. According to PLP president Jerry Hobbs, it will likely be a month before they are ready to file it in federal court.

In the meantime, I urge each of you to make a contribution to PLP. They already have four lawsuits in progress on behalf of miners -- this will be number five -- and attorney fees will be ongoing. Keene Engineering has started the donations off with a $5,000 contribution. You can make a tax-deductible donation online via PayPal or by mail:

For a PayPal donation, use the link on the left side on PLP's website.

by mail:
c/o Barrett Wetherby
3700 Santa Carlotta
La Crescenta, CA 91214

Update 1: Judge Roesch's order (14-page pdf file, 1.7Mb).

Update 2: SB 670 passed the California Assembly. The vote was 63 - 11 in favor of the bill. This bill requires the state of California to stop issuing suction dredge permits until the new EIR and rulemaking process is complete, which could be several years. The bill will be on the governor's desk shortly.

Please take a moment to contact the governor and ask him to veto SB 670.

Contact the Governor's office by mail:
     Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
     State Capitol Building
     Sacramento, CA 95814

     By fax:
     (916) 558-3160

     By phone:
     (916) 445-4633

Talking Points
  • SB 670 will cause economic harm to hundreds of California businesses and will result in layoffs.
  • Environmentalists continue to claim that suction gold dredging is harming threatened and endangered species, without evidence of a single fish being harmed. Strict timing windows are already in place in California so that suction gold dredging will not interfere with spawning.
  • According to Dennis R. Maria, California Department of Fish and Game senior biologist (retired), “In all my years of experience, I have never seen evidence of a single fish killed by suction dredge mining, even juvenile fish, because the Department has restricted such activity in the only period when such mining is likely to cause actual injury by digging into fish redds or areas where alevins (sac-fry) would be present.”
  • SB 670 will cause irreparable harm to thousands of individuals and hundreds of businesses in California. Negatively impacted businesses include mining publications, mining equipment manufacturers and retailers, assayers, prospecting clubs, resorts, hotels, motels, private campgrounds and many more.
  • The Mining Law of 1872 makes it clear that mining is a right subject to reasonable regulation – not prohibition.
  • Suction dredge mining has been subjected to many studies that indicate this activity not only is de minimis to fish and their habitat under current regulations, but this is the only activity that occurs in our state waters that provides mitigation.1   
  • Suction dredge mining creates dissolved oxygen and breaks up compacted gravels, creating the spawning areas, holes and cooler waters necessary for a healthy fish population. The DFG spends millions of dollars to create this same scenario for spawning fish.2   
  • Suction dredge mining removes harmful lead, mercury and man-made debris from our waters.  Washington has set up a program, in cooperation with suction dredge miners, to collect harmful metals and debris.  Over a 12-month period the Washington Department of Ecology took possession of over 150 lbs. of mercury that had been recovered by suction dredge miners.3
  • If the bill is enacted, we are committed to joining other California businesses and individuals in litigation against the state to correct the situation.
  • Joseph C. Greene, a US EPA research biologist (retired) with 30 years experience, has directly addressed and refuted the claims made by those who state that suction gold dredging is harmful to the environment. In fact, Greene states that the dispute has little to do with possible harm to endangered fish but rather is centered on power and control of California’s waterways.4

Scott Harn
ICMJ's Prospecting and Mining Journal
1  Effects of Small-Scale Gold Dredging on Arsenic, Copper, Lead, and Zinc Concentrations in the 
         Similkameen River,  Washington State Dept. of Ecology, March 2005, Publication No. 05-03-007.
    Impact of suction dredging on water quality, benthic habitat, and biota in the Fortymile River, Resurrection
         Creek, and Chatanika River, Alaska, US Environmental Protection Agency, June 1999.

2  Evaluating the Success of Spawning Habitat Enhancement on the Merced River, Robinson Reach,
         California Department of Fish and Game, 2002.

3  Miners Clean Washington Rivers and Streams, ICMJ’s Prospecting and Mining Journal, May 2007.
4 Third Declaration of Joseph C. Greene in support of the reply memorandum in opposition to
         proposed stipulated judgment of the New 49’ers and Raymond W. Koons; Karuk Tribe of California
         v. California Department of Fish and Game et al; Case No. RG05 211597; Superior Court of California,
         County of Alameda; January 2006.

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

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