Ban On Suction Dredge Mining Out Of California Rivers Extended

SAN BERNARDINO—(June 25) San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Gilbert Ochoa on Wednesday, June 24 ruled against an attempt by the mining community to start suction dredge mining in California waterways this summer. Suction dredge miners had asked the court to prevent the California Department of Fish and Wildlife from enforcing the current moratorium, which has been in place since 2009, on what it alleged to be a highly destructive practice. The moratorium is designed to prevent mercury pollution and damage to wildlife, waterways and cultural resources caused by suction dredge mining until safer rules are adopted.
“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that our rivers and wildlife will be protected this summer from the toxic plumes of mercury that suction dredge mining releases,” said Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “In this time of devastating drought, our water supplies are crucial to California’s well-being. I really hope the legislature steps in to clarify the need to protect our dwindling water supplies from mining pollution.”
Suction dredge mining uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. California law prohibits in-stream suction dredge mining until the state develops regulations that pay for the program and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has not completed those regulations.
“In light of our crashing fish populations, to allow the vacuuming up of our streambeds to search for gold defies common sense as well as being a war on fish,” said Robert Wright, senior counsel for Friends of the River. “Happily, it now looks like sanity will prevail this summer.”
A current bill in the California legislature — Senate Bill 637 (Allen) — would establish water-quality regulations to limit suction dredge mining pollution. S.B. 637 entails language of definitude intended to minimize the legal uncertainty regarding in-stream river mining, which is also being reviewed by the California Supreme Court in the People v. Rinehart case. The bill has passed the California Senate and is now with the state assembly.
According to the Center For Biological Diversity, “The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies. It harms state water supplies by suspending toxic mercury, sediment and heavy metals. 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.”
“Suction dredging is a continuation of the genocidal legacy of gold miners that started over 150 years ago,” said the Karuk tribe’s director of natural resources, Leaf Hillman. “We will continue the fight to protect our cultural and natural resources from this reckless form of river mining.”
Because its members believe suction dredge mining threatens important cultural resources and sensitive wildlife species, the California Native American Heritage Commission has condemned its impacts on priceless tribal and archeological resources. “It destroys sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead trout, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds,” according to the commission.
A coalition of tribal, conservation and fisheries groups have been seeking to uphold California’s laws regulating suction dredge mining. This coalition 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.
James L. Buchal, a Portland, Oregon-based attorney who represents a group of miners known as “The New 49ers,” told the Sentinel, “I anticipate this order will be appealed. Congress has declared that with regard to federal land, it is to be open to development of minerals and it has granted miners the right to develop their claims on that land. States do not have plenary authority over federal land What the judge has done is flatly unreasonable in denying the issuance of permits under any and all circumstances. The states do not have the authority to withhold those permits. It is worth noting that as California is experiencing very severe resource problems, the state is spending a considerable amount of money harassing these people who are causing no actual environmental harm.”

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