[env-trinity] Times Standard: Tribes and environmentalists petition to close dredge mining 'loophole

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Fri Mar 29 07:47:24 PDT 2013

Tribes and environmentalists petition to close dredge mining 'loophole'; miners say moratorium on dredging hurts community in Northern California river dispute
Grant Scott-Goforth/The Times-Standard Eureka Times Standard
In the latest Northern California river mining dispute, tribes and environmentalists have petitioned the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to tighten its moratorium on suction dredge mining.

A dredge, as defined by Fish and Wildlife code, consists of three main parts: a hose, motor and sluice box. A sluice box sifts through the silt sucked from the river bed, separating gold from gravel and mud. Since the 2009 moratorium took effect, miners have found ways to modify their equipment so that it fits within the letter of the law.

”This is a purely semantic trick intended to disguise the fact that they are still in violation of the statute,” reads a petition on behalf of a group that includes the Karuk Tribe, Klamath Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and others. “These miners simply reconfigure their dredge operations specifically to evade the very narrow (and arbitrary) regulatory definition of 'suction dredging' as requiring a sluice box.”

Miners say the practice is not as harmful as it seems and that Fish and Game is fine with it. Mining advocacy group the New 49'ers runs a website with a section titled “Underwater Suction Mining in California Without the Use of a 'Suction Dredge!'” which includes instructions and several diagrams showing how dredges can be modified to comply with the moratorium.

The website recommends removing the sluice box and pumping the silt into a box or onto the riverbank for sifting.

”It's no longer a dredge,” said Rich Krimm, director of internal affairs for the New 49'ers. Krimm, who lives in the east San Francisco Bay Area but spends eight to 10 months “on the river” in Northern California, said Fish and Wildlife told the New 49'ers that removing the sluice box from a typical suction dredger would be legal.

”It doesn't fit within the intent of the moratorium,” Krimm said, adding that the group has “talked to a couple of the different wardens and they said as long as the components are kept separate, have at it.”

Fish and Wildlife senior policy advisor Mark Stopher confirmed that removing the sluice box appeared to exclude the machine from the moratorium, though he said it wasn't as simple as his department giving miners the go-ahead.

”That's always been what a suction dredge has been,” he said. “It's consistent with our previous regulations. Nobody in the past had tried to use some kind of device with a vacuum hose and a water pump without a sluice. And, of course, why would they?”

Stopher said the sluice was the most efficient way to sift for gold.

”It's hard to say if this will be a popular method,” he said. “We know of one miner who has used this method. That's not to say other miners might have, and we just haven't seen them.”

Environmental groups say the practice damages habitat for sensitive fish and frogs and releases mercury into waterways.

”This is not the lawless 'wild west,'” Glen Spain, of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said in a press release. “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.”

Karuk Tribe Klamath Coordinator Craig Tucker said dredging uncovers mercury, a heavy metal that worked its way to the bottom of riverbeds after being left behind by the 19th century Gold Rush.

”It's relatively benign if it's buried down there in its elemental form,” Tucker said.

Dredging reintroduces that mercury when it vacuums the bottom of the riverbed searching for gold. Mercury not caught in a dredge's sluice box is dispersed like a fine mist back into the water, Tucker said, where it becomes methylated and dangerous to humans.

Krimm downplayed environmental harm caused by dredging and related an anecdote where a fisherman came to him asking where he had recently dredged.

”Because that is a perfect place to fish,” Krimm said the man told him.

Tucker said that may be true -- in the short-term.

”That's because every micro-invertebrate in the gravel is being spewed into the water column,” Tucker said. “That's like taking all of the food in the river and spewing it into the water in a few hours.”

Tucker said suction dredge mining disrupts the particular gravel where salmon prefer to spawn.

”You're rearranging the bottom of the river,” he said. “It's not good spawning habitat.”

Krimm said miners are open to some environmental regulations, such as limiting the size of a suction nozzle and dredging during limited times of the year.

”I know the miners do a lot of cleanup out there,” he said. “If you ask us to do something and it's reasonable, we're going to do it.”

He suggested there could be balance between the “hard-core miner” and the “extreme environmentalist,” though he wasn't particularly optimistic about that occurring.

”We've been battling with the states for a long, long time,” he said. “There's probably a lack of leadership to stay neutral from the standpoint of the different state agencies.”

The New 49'ers suffered a blow when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this month to let a court of appeals ruling stand. That ruling stated the U.S. Forest Service must consult biologists from other agencies before allowing miners to do anything that might harm salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The Karuk Tribe had sued the Forest Service after a district ranger allowed the New 49'ers to mine the Klamath River without first consulting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service.

Krimm said miners bring much-needed income to stores, gas stations and RV parks that have suffered as a result of the moratorium.

”They've taken a tremendous beating,” he said.

Tucker said the state issued about 3,000 suction dredge mining permits before the moratorium.

According to Fish and Game statistics, 1.8 million fishing licenses were purchased in 2012.

”Fishing by far is a bigger factor in California's economy, and that's what we should be protecting,” Tucker said.

Krimm painted miners as the underdogs in the fight. “There are people out there who try to make a living. They work that gravel bar every day -- they weren't well-to-do. Miners don't have federal backing like the environmentalists do to pay for attorneys.”

”What the miners are doing now is illegal and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is a willing accomplice to the crime,” Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources Director Leaf Hillman said in a press release.

Stopher said Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham, with input from the department's scientists and legal counsel, has 30 days from the March 20 petition date to make a decision on whether to remove the loophole.

”Petitioners have raised some points that we need to pretty carefully think about,” Stopher said.

Grant Scott-Goforth can be reached at 441-0514 or gscott-goforth at times-standard.com.
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