[env-trinity] Lake County News 11 16 09
bwl3 at comcast.net
Wed Nov 18 07:39:18 PST 2009
Battle over suction dredge mining headed for court
Lake County News-11/16/09
By Elizabeth Larson
The ongoing battle over suction dredge mining is headed to federal court, as
a group of miners plans to challenge a state-imposed moratorium on the
practice which went into effect in August.
The topic of suction dredge mining is a complex one, complete with
proponents and opponents with fiercely held views, each bringing to the
table science that backs their stances and a deep ideological divide about
the use of natural resources.
In August, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 670, emergency legislation
written by North Coast Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa). Two years
previously, he had vetoed a bill to limit the practice.
The bill put into effect an immediate moratorium on all instream suction
dredge mining, which involves a vacuum system run by a small engine that
runs gravel and materials from the bottom of a stream through a system to
strain out gold.
Suction dredging operations performed for the regular maintenance of energy
or water supply management infrastructure, flood control or navigational
purposes are allowed to continue.
The suction dredging ban will be in effect until the California Department
of Fish and Game (DFG) completes a court-ordered environmental review of its
permitting program, expected in late summer 2011.
In the wake of the North Coast fisheries closure, Wiggins said the measure
was needed while the impacts of the practice on the salmon were studied.
Scientific studies completed to date have had varying conclusions about
suction dredge mining, which both sides in the debate point to in defending
However, miners and business owners in California's far northern reaches
believe the legislation is doing them real harm, as they watch their income
shrink to nothing in the wake of the moratorium.
"We are seriously considering a preliminary injunction," said attorney David
Young, who has filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of Public Lands
for the People.
That injunction, said Young, could lift the state's moratorium if the court
finds the state is infringing on federal rights, particularly under federal
mining law established in 1872. "The state has gone into an area that is
preempted by the federal government," Young said.
S. Craig Tucker, PhD, campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said the
tribe is intervening on behalf of the state in the case.
The law invalidated approximately 3,624 mining permits around the state and
made suction dredge mining a misdemeanor, according to DFG. Miners who
violate the moratorium could face a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in
Jordan Traverso, a DFG spokesperson, said the agency doesn't know for
certain if any citations have been issued, but they believe that most miners
have complied and switched "to other legal methods of mining."
However, Gerald Hobbs, president of Public Lands for the People, said,
"There are many still out there dredging."
He added, "I can't advocate that - I can't blame them, either."
Revenues from the permit program, said Traverso, weren't sufficient to meet
its expenditures. She said permits cost $47 for residents and $185.25 for
Hobbs said suction dredge mining primarily takes place in and around the
Yuba, Klamath, Scott and Salmon rivers. The mother lode, he said is farther
south, near Sacramento.
On Nov. 2, DFG announced that it planned to host a series of scoping
meetings this month in Fresno, Sacramento and Redding to take public comment
on the study. An environmental impact review on the agency's suction dredge
mining permit program also is under way, with comments due by Dec. 3.
DFG already has released a 122-page literature review on the permitting
program, which can be found at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/suctiondredge/ .
Tucker said the tribe expects to be "intimately involved" in the scoping
He said the hope is that the best available science will be brought to the
table, and that new regulations will be crafted that will allow dredging in
certain circumstances and certain places, and done in such a way that it
won't harm fish.
It's not fair to say that every place that's dredged impacts fish, said
Tucker. "It's going to be different for every reach of river," and impacts
from river to river need to be considered.
"I don't think the science would show that you can't put any dredges
anywhere in the river," he said. "It's about where and when."
But for some miners there's little trust in the public process, and they
plan to challenge the state's right to, in their view, infringe on federally
granted mining rights.
"Our position is, it's not going to be satisfactory to begin with," said
He said if the findings aren't restrictive enough, he expects
environmentalists and the Karuk Tribe will sue. If the proposed regulations
are too restrictive, Hobbs said his group will sue.
Traverso said DFG released a final EIR in 1994 and adopted the existing
suction dredge mining regulations. The agency also prepared a draft EIR to
reconsider the regulations in 1997, but she said that process was not
Another review had begun as the result of a 2005 lawsuit filed against the
state by the Karuk Tribe, a major sponsor of Wiggins' legislation, in an
effort to force DFG to overhaul its suction dredging rules.
The tribe, California Trout, Friends of the North Fork and the Sierra Fund
then petitioned DFG to issue emergency regulations to limit dredging on
Klamath tributaries and five other streams in the Sierra as they worked on
the environmental impact report (EIR). DFG officials reportedly refused to
issue regulations, arguing that they cannot do so under current law.
In 2007 DFG began seeking comments from the public on whether suction dredge
mining had adverse environmental impacts, if the activity as permitted under
DFG regulations was harming fish and whether new information had come up
since 1994 that showed there were significantly more severe environmental
impacts that the agency previously had considered.
DFG's review was supposed to take 18 months and be completed by July 2008,
but by the time Wiggins' legislation was passed this summer it still hadn't
begun. The EIR never got off the ground because financial and staff
resources weren't available, said Traverso.
Meanwhile, before the legislation passed with no end date known for DFG's
review, the Alameda District court issued a preliminary injunction in the
case in which DFG was ordered to immediately cease using general fund money
to operate the suction dredge permitting program because it is being
operated in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Hobbs said Public Lands for the People also has filed an appeal of that
Hobbs took part in the environmental impact report process for DFG's 1994
regulations update, which had a working committee. There's no such committee
this time, said Hobbs, who maintained no new evidence has been presented
from 1995 forward that shows damage from suction dredge mining.
Miners say they can't be in the river during spawning periods, that they
care about the fish and don't harm them. Tucker, however, said they've seen
evidence of dredges in the river at critical times.
There's also evidence, according to mining supporters, that the practice
breaks up hardened gravel at the bottom of streams, making for better salmon
The attempt to ban suction dredge mining wasn't new.
"This isn't the first time they've tried this," said Siskiyou County
Supervisor Marcia Armstrong, who spoke against Wiggins' bill.
In October 2007, Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 1032, a bill by then-Assembly
member Lois Wolk (D-Davis), which would have authorized DFG to close areas
to dredging if it determined the action was necessary to protect fish and
wildlife resources, and would have let the agency specify the size and type
of equipment to be used, as well as adjusting permit fees.
Schwarzenegger's veto message called the message "unnecessary," noting that
DFG had "the necessary authority to protect fish and wildlife resources from
suction dredge mining."
Despite the 2007 veto, Wiggins' bill to institute a moratorium appeared to
gain momentum following the closure of the fisheries along the Pacific coast
of California and Oregon.
In Wiggins' North Coast district, which includes Lake and Mendocino
counties, coastal counties were heavily impacted when the fisheries were
closed in 2008.
Wiggins chairs the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture. Other
legislators who saw impacts in their districts signed on as SB 670
co-authors:Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), Sen. Lois Wolk
(D-Davis), Assembly members Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) and Dave Jones
DFG's previously stalled study is now well under way, and Traverso said $1
million was included for the study in the 2008-09 budget, plus another
$500,000 for 2009-10.
Teresa Schilling, a legislative aide with Wiggins' office, said Wiggins was
looking for a way to get the process back on track "and get the state to do
the job it should be doing."
Schilling said Wiggins also was looking at ways to bring back salmon runs.
Some of the bigger issues around the fisheries collapse is being addressed
now as the state looks at the Bay-Delta, "which is really about how do we
allocate water in a more fair and modern way" that can benefit salmon runs,
In the case of SB 670, Wiggins said the moratorium was needed in order to
help address the alarming decline of salmon and steelhead populations, which
in turn were affecting the livelihoods of commercial fishermen, fish
processors and charter boat operators.
She said the practice kills fish eggs, immature eels and churns up
long-buried mercury left over from the gold mining era.
Schilling said they've received a lot of feedback on the bill. "There are
economic impacts on both sides of the issue," she said.
She said most of the studies say there is some impact on fish due to suction
dredge mining, and the body of science points to the need for overhauling
But while the legislation may have aimed to help the North Coast fisheries,
the ripple effect wasn't good for the gold country.
In Armstrong's community, she said she's already seeing businesses hanging
on by a thread.
In April Armstrong - who has worked on salmon issues since 1992, serving
with the Klamath River Fisheries Task Force and the Five Counties Salmonid
Conservation Program - testified before the California Senate Natural
Resources and Water Committee and urged against SB 670's passage.
"It is our opinion that various studies have shown that suction dredge
mining has a negligible effect on fisheries and can have a positive
rehabilitative effect in the restoration of spawning gravels. We have found
no published peer reviewed scientific field studies to the contrary," she
told the committee.
With a gold mining history heritage, Siskiyou County still sees people make
a modest living on gold mining, said Armstrong. It's been a popular draw for
tourists and an important micro economy in an area that suffered through the
decline of the timber industry in recent decades as concerns about another
creature - in that case, the northern spotted owl - ended livelihoods.
Tourism has helped the area since.
She said an economic study shows Siskiyou county is dead last among the
state's counties in terms of economic well-being, and has the lowest median
income at $30,356, compared to $56,332 for California as a whole, and 65
percent of Siskiyou County households with children ages 0 to 17 are low
Siskiyou's September unemployment rate was 13.5 percent, compared to Lake's
at 14.7 percent. Armstrong estimated the Happy Camp area's unemployment is
10 percent higher than the rest of Siskiyou County.
Armstrong said a mining claim is a property right that should have just
compensation if it can't be used.
Bill Bird, spokesman for Sen. Sam Aanestad - whose 12-county area includes
those most impacted by the suction dredge mining ban - said the senator's
district includes Del Norte County, an area where salmon fishing is an
"You basically had two sides pitted against each other" - the suction
dredgers and the fishermen, said Bird.
In the end, Aanestad looked at the issue from a statewide perspective and
chose to argue against hurting an industry, Bird said. "Unfortunately, he
was not able to garner the votes to stop the bill."
Bird said their office has been told that DFG is halfway completed with its
review, but no time frame was given for completion.
He said Aanestad's office has talked to people around the state whose
livelihoods have been affected by the ban. "We know that the signing of the
bill put a lot of them pretty much out of business."
Bird said nobody's arguing that the salmon fishing industry hasn't
collapsed, but he maintained it's not because of mining. Just like on the
Klamath, salmon numbers are down in the Sacramento and American rivers,
where there is no suction dredge mining below the dams. In the end, more
study needs to be done, Bird added.
"Some industries are accepted and loved in California and others are not,"
Armstrong said the Happy Camp area's chamber of commerce had a series of
events this summer to try to boost the economy in the wake of the mining
ban. There were cycling and other events passing through, but the money they
left behind wasn't close to that gained through the miners.
That doesn't bode well for the area's businesses. "I suspect that there's
going to be some problems in keeping some of those services in the
community," Armstrong said.
She said Happy Camp's family resource center is running out of emergency
food supplies as winter approaches.
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land
415 519 4810 cell
<mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net
<mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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