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California rushing to an end of gold mining?

Legislation would extend ban on suction dredging through 2016

Matt Drange
The Times-Standard

Budget cuts are rarely hailed by environmentalists as having positive effects on watershed habitats, but a recent proposal to slash funding to the California Department of Fish and Game is being met with optimism by groups looking to put a stop to the gold mining technique known as suction dredging.

Opponents of the modern day gold prospecting practice amended the budget last month by adding language that prohibits Fish and Game from spending money to issue any new dredging permits, a move that will save the state an estimated $1.8 million. Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, pushed forward the bill, which he defended by saying, “We've just got a lot more important things to find funding for.”

With the deadline to present a balanced budget to the governor looming, California Controller John Chiang issued a statement last week reaffirming that he will permanently withhold legislators' salary and per diem payments starting June 16, something voters approved in November to encourage lawmakers to sift through funding decisions for programs across the board.

Environmental groups say suction dredging -- which involves using handheld devices similar to vacuums that suck up sediment from the river bottom and deposit the material into sluice boxes above -- is damaging to fisheries that are already on the decline. Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the Karuk Indian Tribe in Northern California, said it's been “downhill” for the tribe since the first gold rush more than 150 years ago.

Some fish species like the lamprey live in riverbed sediment for up seven years during their larval stage, Tucker said, and are especially vulnerable to suction dredging.

”It's deadly to those species,” Tucker said, adding that with dams, irrigation systems and potentially harmful timber harvesting practices still dotting the landscape around many of the tribal region's rivers and streams, suction dredging would be one issue the group could cross off the list if the proposed legislation goes through.

But many in the gold mining community feel the decision to cut funding for the prospecting technique is being rushed and that by extending the ban on suction dredging lawmakers are putting an indefinite hold on gold mining's future. In 2009, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger implemented a two-year moratorium on suction dredging, which, under current proposed legislation would run through 2016.

Rachel Dunn, co-owner of the mining supply shop Gold Pan California, said the language of the extension “circumvents due process” by failing to consider public comment on the issue and assuring that new regulations are passed before Fish and game completes its Environmental Impact Report in November.

To date, Fish and Game has spent $1.2 million of the $1.5 million allocated by the state to complete the EIR, which remains in the draft stage.

”This kills the industry with zero debate. It's heinous,” said Dunn, one of many who voiced their displeasure last month at a series of public comment hearings on the issue. As an alternative to eliminating the practice, Dunn said, others at the hearings proposed raising permitting fees to offset inspection and administrative costs.

In addition to damaging effects on fisheries, environmental groups say another byproduct of the dredging is the reintegration of elemental mercury left behind by the first gold miners some 150 years ago. Once in the water column, the particles can become methyl mercury, which studies have shown causes brain damage to humans.

Dunn disputed the issue, saying that suction dredging actually removes “98 percent” of the mercury particles in the water when the material is separated out in the sluice box, adding that many of the areas where high levels of mercury are reported were first discovered by miners.

”It's really stunning that this is happening this way,” she said. “Every citizen has mining rights, but with this, the entire state gets slapped.”

Gold prices dropped a bit from near-record highs to $1,529 per ounce on Friday, but a clear incentive remains for the recipients of the roughly 3,650 resident and non-resident dredging permits issued annually over the last 15 years. The benefits from keeping gold prospecting alive extend to other areas of the economy, Dunn said, including tourism dollars that flow into rural communities in the form of supplies and lodging expenses.

Regardless of the risks associated with mercury exposure, Tucker said that it is nearly impossible to dredge in such a way that does not adversely affect the various fish species that inhabit the region collectively referred to as the “Mother Lode” -- an area in Central California including the Feather, Yuba, Klamath, American and Kern rivers, among others, which serve as hot spots for mining activity. The current draft version of the EIR calls for stricter regulations of suction dredging, which previous Fish and Game requirements limited to summer months and those areas deemed safe for fisheries.

”Different fish spawn at different times. You've got rivers like the (Klamath River) that are still ecologically sophisticated,” Tucker said, adding that he was optimistic the proposed legislation would make it through. “The regulations in the past were not protective of fish. There are other ways of recovering gold, and they need to find them.”

Mark Stopher, a Fish and Game environmental program manager who spent the last two years working on suction dredging issues out of Redding, said that the $1.8 million in annual savings was a rough estimate put out by the department in 2009. Included in it are the selling and databasing of individual permits and the cost of sending fisheries biologists to collect information at various sites, as well as the wardens who must devote a portion of their time to enforcing the regulations.

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