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For Immediate Release, July 1, 2013


Craig Tucker, Karuk Tribe, (916) 207-8294
Jonathan Evans, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 318
Glen Spain, PCFFA, (541) 689-2000

California Closes Suction Dredge Mining Loophole

All Motorized Recreational Mining Banned in California's Rivers

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— 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.

Suction dredge mining has a history of controversy. California courts have repeatedly confirmed that it violates state laws and poses threats to wildlife, and the state government has placed a moratorium on the destructive practice. Last year California Gov. Jerry Brown continued a moratorium initiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on suction dredge mining until the state develops regulations that pay for the program.

In March 2013 a coalition including environmental organizations, fishermen and the Karuk tribe submitted a formal petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife asking the agency to close a loophole that allowed recreational miners to return to suction dredging by making equipment modifications that sidestep state law and worsen impacts to the environment. When state wildlife officials denied the March request the coalition filed an emergency request in May  to close the loophole, prompting the current regulatory reform. On Friday the Office of Administrative Law formally approved emergency rules proposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies: It damages habitat for sensitive, threatened and endangered fish and frogs, and releases toxic mercury plumes left over from the Gold Rush into waterways.
Environmental analysis by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife identified several of the impacts:

  • Mobilizes and discharges toxic levels of mercury, harming drinking-water quality and potentially poisoning fish and wildlife;
  • Harms fish, amphibians and songbirds by disrupting habitat;
  • Causes substantial adverse changes statewide in American Indian cultural and historical resources.

To watch video of recent illegal suction dredge mining click here.

The Karuk Tribe is the second largest federally recognized Indian Tribe in California. The Karuk have been in conflict with gold miners since 1850. Karuk territory is along the middle Klamath and Salmon Rivers.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is trade association of commercial fishermen on the west coast dedicated to assuring the rights of individual fishermen and fighting for the long-term survival of commercial fishing as a productive livelihood and way of life.

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