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The Suction Gold Dredging Fight Continues in California

June 11, 2009

(Updated 06-11-2009)
The story is similar to what has played out over the past several years. The Karuk Tribe of northern California, with the support of several environmental and fishing groups, sues the California Department of Fish & Game in an attempt to stop suction gold dredging in the state. At the same time, they find a state legislator sympathetic to their cause and persuade the legislator to introduce a bill to stop suction gold dredging.

The Latest Lawsuit
The latest lawsuit was filed April 30, 2009, and the first hearing is scheduled for today, June 9, in Alameda County Superior Court.

This time the plaintiffs are Leeon Hillman, Craig Tucker and David Bitts of the Karuk Tribe; Center for Biological Diversity; Friends of the River; Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations; Institute for Fisheries Resources; and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. (Karuk Tribal leader Leaf Hillman is not listed as a plaintiff in this case. He has been temporarily suspended by the tribe following his arrest for meth possession earlier this year.)

The lawsuit claims the California Department of Fish & Game cannot issue suction dredge permits because it is not in compliance with California’s Fish and Game Code §5653, which requires the agency to be in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and to make a determination that suction dredge mining will not be deleterious to fish.

The plaintiffs state that Fish & Game has not completed a new Environmental Impact Report on suction dredging that was ordered by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Sabraw in an earlier lawsuit filed by the Karuks. Pursuant to the judge’s order, Fish & Game agreed to complete a new EIR by June 20, 2008. Fish & Game has started the process but it has not been completed. Therefore, the lawsuit claims, Fish & Game is out of compliance with CEQA and with the order of the court so they cannot issue suction dredge permits.

The plaintiffs also state that suction dredging is causing harm to threatened and endangered fish. This is based on an opinion by Neil Manji, the Fisheries Branch Chief of Fish & Game, issued in the previous court case, though his opinion was limited to Coho salmon in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon rivers. This opinion was contrary to all previous opinions issued by Fish & Game, and Manji provided no studies to back up his opinion.

Public Lands for the People (PLP) and the New 49’ers prospecting club have intervened on behalf of miners. ICMJ's Prospecting and Mining Journal has provided $5,000 in financial support to PLP so far this year to help cover attorney fees in this case and others that are at various stages. We will be talking with PLP president Jerry Hobbs following today’s hearing and will provide an update tomorrow.

06-11-2009 Update: Jerry Hobbs, president of PLP, stated that both sides presented their arguments in Alameda County Superior Court as scheduled and the attorneys representing the miners presented a strong case to keep the status quo for suction gold dredging until a new EIR is completed by Fish & Game. The small courtroom was packed with miners and prospectors who were there to lend their support. The judge is expected to make a preliminary ruling within a few days and we will keep you posted.

The Latest Legislation
The Karuks found the sympathetic ear of California Senator Pat Wiggins. Wiggins introduced Senate Bill 670 in California. The bill would halt all suction gold dredging in California until Fish & Game completes a new EIR.

SB 670 passed the Senate on May 26, 2009. Every Democrat voted in favor of SB 670, and they were joined by Republicans Benoit, Denham, Harmon, Maldonado, Strickland and Walters.

SB 670 has moved to the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee in the California Assembly, and is scheduled to be reviewed by the committee on June 16, 2009.

What You Can Do to Help
There are several things you can do right now to help.

PLP and the New 49’ers are in court right now. They have several attorneys representing the rights of miners and believe this is a very winnable case. They also have former biologists and scientists from the California Department of Fish & Game and the Environmental Protection Agency on their team to debunk the claims made by the plaintiffs. They need continued financial support to cover attorney fees.  Take a moment to make a contribution to PLP or the New 49’ers.

PLP is a non-profit organization. (Tax ID: 95-4521318.) Contributions to PLP are tax deductible and can be made with any major credit card via PayPal on the PLP website.
For your tax records, or to mail a check or money order:
      Public Lands for the People
      3700 Santa Carlotta St
      La Crescenta, CA 91214

The New 49’ers does not qualify as a non-profit, but still accepts donations to their legal fund with any major credit card through PayPal. Make a donation to New 49'ers to support the fight.

SB 670 needs a two-thirds majority to pass in the California Assembly. Even so, it’s doubtful that contacting legislators will do any good. A similar bill, AB 1032, passed the Assembly last year. We sent a letter to all subscribers located in the western states asking them to contact Governor Schwarzenegger and encourage him to veto AB 1032. Many of our readers took the time to send him their comments, and AB 1032 was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

Please take a moment to register your opinion with Governor Schwarzenegger on SB 670. We have included a copy of our letter to the governor in both Microsoft Word format and Adobe pdf format. Feel free to use any part of our letter when writing comments.

     Contact the Governor 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

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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