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California | Central Valley | North Coast | U.S. | Environment & Forest Defense

Bill Banning Suction Dredge Mining Breezes Through State Senate
by Dan Bacher
Tuesday May 26th, 2009 2:02 PM
The California Senate today approved a bill banning suction dredge gold mining on certain California rivers by a vote of 31 to 8.

Photo: A suction dredge miner has dammed and rerouted part of the East Fork San Gabriel River in southern California. Dozens of miners are working a few miles of this river, which provides critical habitat for endangered native fish and drinking water for much of Los Angeles. Courtesy of Steve Evans, Friends of the River.
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Bill Banning Suction Dredge Mining Breezes Through State Senate

by Dan Bacher

(Sacramento) The California Senate Tuesday approved a bill requiring the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to temporarily halt issuing all suction dredge mining permits by a vote of 31 to 8, including bi-partisan support from Democrats and Republicans throughout the state.

SB 670, sponsored by Senator Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa), easily garnered the 2/3 aye votes needed to be adopted as an urgency measure, meaning it will take effect immediately upon the Governor's signature. Representatives of California Indian Tribes, recreational fishing organizations, commercial fishing groups and environmental organizations consider the vote to be a big victory for fish and the environment, while mining advocacy organizations and the Regional Council of Rural Counties view the legislation as unnecessary and a violation of private property rights.

The Governor vetoed previous legislation restricting suction dredge mining sponsored by then Assemblywoman Lois Wolk in October 2007, but suction dredging opponents are hoping that the strong bi-partisan support for this bill, as well as the urgency of the current salmon fishery crisis, will spur Schwarzenegger to sign the bill this time.

Senate Bill 670 prohibits the use of suction dredge mining equipment in rivers and streams that provide critical habitat to spawning salmon and steelhead until the DFG completes its court-ordered overhaul of regulations governing the controversial recreational activity. Suction dredge mining, a recreational mining activity that disturbs streambeds, is heavily regulated in other states including Oregon. However, California suffers from surprisingly slack regulation.

Suction dredge gold mining involves sucking up sediment from rivers or streams and spitting it out again. “Current California regulations permit monster-sized dredges capable of moving thousands of yards of river bottom in a summer season,” Wiggins said. “This kills fish eggs, immature eels and churns up long-buried mercury left over from the gold mining era. In short, it’s harmful to fish at a time when they need our help the most.”

Wiggins said the DFG has been ordered by the courts to overhaul regulations governing suction dredge mining on streams. In 2005, the Karuk Tribe sued DFG to force the department to overhaul its suction dredging rules. Pushed by suction dredge miners, the courts ordered the department to complete a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review before it acted. That review was supposed to take 18 months and be completed by July 2008, but DFG has yet to begin.

That led the Karuk Tribe, California Trout, Friends of the North Fork and the Sierra Fund to petition DFG to issue emergency regulations to limit dredging on Klamath tributaries and five other streams in the Sierra Nevada while it completes its EIR. DFG officials refused to issue regulations, arguing that they cannot do so under current law, stated Wiggins.

Last year, all salmon fishing was banned along the Pacific coast of California and Oregon, due to the unprecedented collapse of Central Valley fall Chinook salmon, the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries. In 2006, commercial salmon fishing was severely restricted because of low numbers of salmon returning to the Klamath River.

“The crisis is so dire that the ban has been placed again this year,” Wiggins said. “This is affecting the livelihoods of thousands of commercial fishermen, fish processors and charter boat operators, and eliminating hundred of thousands of dollars in economic activity.”

She noted that at a minimum, it will take DFG two more years of study before the CEQA review is completed and rules can be updated to protect fish – and two more years of status quo dredging while endangered salmon populations continue to dwindle.

“This is a classic instance why we must use the precautionary principle to guide decisions,” Wiggins said. “We must err on the side of the fish, because their survival is at stake. It simply doesn’t make sense to jeopardize an entire fishery, and to ask commercial fishermen to halt all fishing while allowing status quo for a recreational hobby.”

Representatives of the Karuk Tribe, fishing groups and environmental organizations praised the bill's passage by the Senate.

“We are very pleased with today’s vote,” commented Bob Goodwin, Karuk Self Governance Coordinator and Tribal member. “We have had to suffer through 150 years of watching gold miners rip apart our river; today we begin the slow process of putting it back together.”

Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund, added, “We are so pleased with the bipartisan support that this bill has earned, reflecting the clear consensus on the importance of protecting fish and water quality. The Sierra Fund thanks Senator Wiggins as well as the Senators that spoke on behalf of the bill including Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg, and Senators Ducheny, Wolk, and Oropeza.”

"SB 670 is a step forward for better protection for salmon in their rivers than they have today," said Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "There's no excuse to allow practices that destroy salmon habitat while we are all desperately trying to increase devastated runs and put fishermen back to work."

“It’s good to see California stop spending taxpayer money on a mining program that puts a few flakes of gold in 3,000 hobby miners’ pockets while harming fisheries and those who depend upon clean, healthy rivers," agreed Scott Harding, Executive Director of Klamath Riverkeeper.

Senator Sam Aanestad (R- Grass Valley) argued against the bill, suggesting that it amounted to a "taking of property rights." In response, Senator Wiggins pointed out that SB 670 takes no one’s property and miners can still mine using other mining techniques that are less environmentally destructive.

The bill will next move to the State Assembly, which will likely assign the bill to the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee chaired by Assemblymember Jared Huffman. Mr. Huffman is a co-author of the bill, along with Assemblymembers Evans and Jones.

If SB 670 passes, the moratorium on issuing permits would last until DFG completes its court-ordered environmental review and resulting overhaul of regulations governing the practice. "It is estimated that this will save the Department nearly $1 million in costs to administer a program that does not pay for itself, and allow it to dedicate saved funding toward paying for the EIR necessary to complete regulatory review," said Izzy Martin.

The bill is supported by a broad coalition of Indian Tribes, fishing groups and environmental groups. Supporters include the California Coastkeeper Alliance, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Tribal Business Alliance, California Trout, Clean Water Action, Friends of the River, Karuk Tribe, Klamath Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Planning and Conservation League, Ramona Band of Cahuila, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Sierra Club California, Sierra Fund, Sierra Nevada Alliance and Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

The bill's opponents include the County of Siskiyou, New 49'ers and Regional Council of Rural Counties. Earlier this year the New 49'ers, a mining advocacy group, and other mining organizations filed a petition with the California Fish and Game Commission to ban the Karuk Tribe from dip net fishing for salmon on the Klamath, but the petition was rejected.

The New 49'ers argue that no scientific information points to suction dredging as a cause in the collapse of salmon, that the collapse is due to ocean conditions and an over-reliance on hatchery fish. They claim that a moratorium would violate the private property rights of those who have federal mining claims and create "takings" liability on the part of the state

The Regional Council of Rural Counties argues that the existing regulations are sufficiently restrictive and protective and allow individuals to legally mine their claims of precious minerals. It points to parts of rural California where mining remains an important port of the culture, history, and economy of some local communities. Siskiyou County separately asserted these same concerns.

"The scientific evidence against suction dredging doesn't pass the laugh test," said James Buchal, attorney for the New 49'ers. "If passed through the Legislature, this bill will put hundreds of people out of work and destroy the vacation plans of thousands of people for no purpose whatsoever."

However, Steve Evans, conservation director of Friends of the River, notes that this legislation will not impact recreational gold panning or non-motorized mining, "just motorized suction dredge mining that disturbs salmon spawning beds, fish and frog habitat, and pollutes the water with sediment and mercury."

The Karuk Tribe, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Klamath Riverkeeper and other environmental and fishing groups recently filed a lawsuit against the DFG's use of General Fund money to support suction dredge mining. The suit is asking for an injunction until California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review is completed and other mitigations take place.

To download The Sierra Fund's groundbreaking report "Mining's Toxic Legacy," go to sierrafund.org/campaigns/mining. For more information about suction dredge mining, please visit http://www.klamathriver.org, http://www.friendsoftheriver.org or http://www.karuk.us/press/mining.php.