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For Immediate Release, March 20, 2013

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

Tribes, Conservationists and Fishermen Ask State to Close Loophole in
California's Suction Dredge Mining Ban

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— A coalition including environmental organizations, fishermen and the Karuk tribe submitted a formal petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife today asking the agency to close a loophole it created allowing recreational miners to return to a technique called suction dredging by making equipment modifications that sidestep state law and worsen impacts to the environment. Because state wildlife officials narrowed state rules to define 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.

Bicknell's thrush
Coho salmon photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons/Dan Bennett. Photos are available for media use.

“Suction dredge mining continues to pollute our waterways with toxic mercury and destroy sensitive wildlife habitat,” said Jonathan Evans with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Backroom approvals of uncontrolled suction dredge mining violate the public trust right along with the law.”

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” to be used in California waterways. But suction dredge miners and state wildlife officials colluded, with no public scrutiny, to allow suction dredge mining as long as the sluice box is removed from the motorized suction dredge equipment. The sluice box is one of several methods to separate gold from dredge spoils.

“The mining community is attempting to evade the will of the courts and the California legislature, both of which placed a moratorium on dredge mining until regulations that protect the environment can be developed,” said Leaf Hillman, director of Karuk Department of Natural Resources. “What the miners are doing now is illegal and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is a willing accomplice to the crime.”

The informal approval allows unfettered suction dredge mining throughout California in areas that include sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead trout, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds. It also includes no protection for sensitive cultural resources or state water supplies.

The Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board urged a complete ban on suction dredge mining because of the significant impacts to 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.  

“This is not the lawless ‘wild west,’ ” said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “There is no miners’ ‘right’ to pollute the public's waters, no ‘right’ to destroy salmon habitat and salmon fishing industry jobs, no ‘right’ for gold miners to suction up stream beds with no limits. The idea that they can dodge all state water and fisheries protection regulations with semantic tricks like this is ridiculous.”

The coalition submitting the formal rulemaking petition includes Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, the Karuk tribe, 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.

Suction dredge mining has a history of controversy. California courts have repeatedly confirmed that it violates state laws and poses threats to wildlife. In 2012 a coalition of environmental, tribal and fisheries groups filed suit to stop the suction dredge mining program.

In a related but separate legal ruling, on Monday the United States Supreme Court let stand a decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals requiring suction dredge miners to comply with the Endangered Species Act when they get permits from the U.S. Forest Service.

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 and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources. The legislation also directed the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to work with the Native American Heritage Commission, State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Public Health and others to create a suction dredge program that does not have significant environmental impacts before allowing suction dredge mining. Regulations adopted by state wildlife officials earlier in 2012 failed to meet these legislative requirements.

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.

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.

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.

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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