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Redding Record Searchlight, April 3, 2012

Suction dredging rules spur suit; group tries to halt implementation of new regulations

By Damon Arthur

A coalition of commercial fishing groups, environmentalists and the Karuk Indian tribe are suing the state in an effort to prevent it from enacting new regulations on using suction dredging to mine for gold.

Filed Monday in Alameda County Superior Court, the suit asks the court to issue an injunction preventing the state Department of Fish and Game from implementing the regulations, which were adopted in March.

Jonathan Evans, one of the lawyers who filed the suit, said suction dredging harms the environment, especially fish in the streams where it occurs.

"Suction dredge mining is a net loser for the state of California," said Evans, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the 10 plaintiffs.

The most recent set of regulations were the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Karuk tribe and others back in 2004, asking a court to force the DFG to conduct an environmental review of suction dredging.

The regulations would limit the DFG to issuing 1,500 suction dredging permits statewide each year. Previously, the state could issue up to 4,000 permits a year. No suction dredging permits are being issued anyway because state law bans suction dredging until 2016.

Under the regulations a dredge also would need to be decontaminated after it was removed from a stream and before it is returned to the water.

Dredges would have to be more than 500 feet apart on a stream and could operate only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Numerous north state streams also were closed to suction dredging under the new regulations.

Evans said the new regulations did not go far enough to protect wildlife from mercury that suction dredging kicks up from the bottom of streams. Mercury was deposited in many streams statewide during the 1850s gold rush when it was used during the mining process.

The regulations also didn't do enough to protect cultural resources and reduce the effects of noise from the dredges, Evans said.

"Until the moratorium was passed, gold miners were still allowed to destroy our rivers, our fisheries and our culture," said Leaf Hillman, natural resources director for the Karuk Tribe.

Jordan Traverso, a DFG spokeswoman, said her office hadn't yet officially received a copy of the lawsuit, so she could not comment on it.

Diana Clayton, president of the Shasta Miners and Prospectors, said the environmental effects of suction dredging are being overstated.

"I think they give a very poor picture of what suction dredging is. You really have to understand that there's a minimal impact" from mining, said Clayton, whose organization has about 200 members.

She said that with only 1,500 permits issued annually, suction dredge mining can't have that large an environmental impact.

Many families rely on gold mining to make a living, and the lawsuit and regulations make it more difficult for them.

"It's a family thing. It's healthy and it's environmentally sound," she said.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton