[env-trinity] Times Standard: State Department of Fish and Wildlife denies suction dredge mining petitions

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Sat Apr 20 10:53:55 PDT 2013

State Department of Fish and Wildlife denies suction dredge mining petitions
Catherine Wong /The Times-Standard Eureka Times Standard
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has denied two petitions regarding its moratorium on suction dredge mining.
In his responding letter, Director Charlton Bonham wrote that the department recently submitted a report to the state Legislature and there are six related lawsuits currently in San Bernardino County Superior Court.

”It is not an appropriate time for the Department to initiate yet another rulemaking effort related to suction dredging under the Fish and Game Code,” he wrote. “... (I)nitiating yet another rulemaking action as requested would only likely frustrate current judicial and legislative efforts to resolve the parties' differences and this long-simmering controversy.”

A petition filed on March 20 by Center for Biological Diversity -- a group that includes the Karuk Tribe, Klamath Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and others -- aimed to tighten the Fish and Wildlife regulations by redefining what constitutes suction dredge mining.

Karuk Tribe Klamath coordinator Chris Tucker said he is “very disappointed” that the department denied the petition. “This has been a long, drawn-out battle for a number of years,” he said.

”The Tribe has won in state court, in the state legislature, and in federal court,” Tucker said in an email. “Despite the wins, at this moment miners are destroying fish habitat on the Klamath River and no agency is taking any action to stop it.”

As defined by the Fish and Wildlife Code, a dredge 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.

The petition cites a mining advocacy group, New 49'ers, which runs a website featuring instructions and several diagrams showing how dredges can be modified to comply with the moratorium. It recommends removing the sluice box and pumping the silt into a box or onto the riverbank for sifting.

”A rose by any other name smells just as sweet, right?” Tucker said. “This machine does the same thing as the last one.”

The petition sought to broaden the definition of suction dredging to “the use of any motorized suction system to vacuum material from anywhere in a river, stream or lake bed or use of any motorized system to return all or some portion of that material to the same river, stream or lake for the extraction of materials” and remove the “narrow definition” that required dredge mining to all three components.

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

Tucker said in a previous interview with the Times-Standard that dredging uncovers mercury, a heavy metal that worked its way to the bottom of riverbeds after being left behind by 19th century Gold Rush mining operations.

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 find mist back into the water where it becomes methylated and dangerous to humans, Tucker said.

A second petition filed on March 27 by the Western Miners Alliance -- a organization of independent miners based in Reno, Nev. -- aimed to repeal the regulations on suction dredge mining.

”Had this potential for harm been present surely we would have seen it during the previous fifty years of suction dredge mining,” the petition reads. “...There is also not a single documented case of any person anywhere in the State having been sickened by the consumption of fish or wildlife due to mercury contamination.”

The alliance petition also requested that any consultation of any proposed amendments “necessarily include” the organization as an affected party.

In the response letter from the department, Bonham wrote, “Finally, if any past practice since 2005 is any indication, the only certainty for the Department following rulemaking as requested is additional litigation, likely by the Center, WMA, or both.”

Catherine Wong can be reached at 441-0509 or cwong at times-standard.com
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