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Suction Dredge Mining

NFARA DEIR Comments | FAC DEIR Comments | 5/11 KVMR Interview
County Ag Commission Letter to Supervisors | County Supervisors' Letter


Suction Dredge Mining Moratorium to Continue

In Late June, California Gov. Jerry Brown continued the current moratorium on the controversial gold-mining technique known as “suction dredge mining” until the state develops regulations that pay for the program and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources.

The new law also directs the state’s Department of Fish and Game, which regulates suction dredge mining, to work with public-health, water and tribal authorities in a review of the practice.

“This common-sense law protects wildlife and waterways from toxic mercury and safeguards California’s cultural heritage,” said Jonathan Evans, toxics and endangered species campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Suction dredge mining, which mines for gold using machines that vacuum up gravel and sand from river bottoms, often pollutes rivers and water supplies by reintroducing mercury from historic mining. According to numerous studies and expert testimony, it harms wildlife by destroying habitat for fish, amphibians and songbirds, and damages American Indian cultural and historical resources.

“After efforts to reach a compromise were rejected by the miners, we had no choice to pursue the moratorium. Now we can rest assured that our cultural and fisheries resources are no longer at risk from dredge miners,” said Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe.

The new law continues the current moratorium on suction dredge mining until new rules “fully mitigate all identified significant environmental impacts” and a “fee structure is in place that will fully cover all costs” to administer the program. Assembly Bill 1018 clarified the existing temporary moratorium on the practice that was set to expire in 2016.

“Suction dredge mining is a net loser for the state of California: It pollutes our waterways with toxic mercury, harms endangered fish and wildlife, hurts cultural resources, wastes taxpayer money and poses a significant threat to public health,” said Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, chief executive officer of the Sierra Fund.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Gov. Jerry Brown both approved temporary moratoriums on suction dredge mining in 2009 and 2011 respectively because the practice repeatedly violated environmental laws.

“Ending harmful suction dredge mining protects jobs and family-owned businesses which rely on healthy salmon fisheries,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the West Coast’s largest trade association of commercial fishing families.

Legislative analysis found that the suction dredge mining program has cost California taxpayers more money than it earns; it lost close to $1 million in 2009. The new law requires any new permit programs to cover all program costs and be revenue neutral.“California can’t afford to subsidize toxic mining that is a disaster for California’s rivers,” said Steve Evans, wild rivers project director for Friends of the River.

Suction dredge mining has a history of controversy. California courts have repeatedly confirmed that it violates state laws and poses threats to wildlife. In April a coalition of environmental, tribal and fisheries groups (including NFARA) filed suit to stop the suction dredge mining program. Earlier this month the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that recreational gold mining using suction dredges requires miners to analyze whether they'll harm protected species like salmon, steelhead trout or California red-legged frogs.

The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies; it damages habitat for sensitive, threatened and endangered fish and frogs and releases toxic mercury plumes, left over from the Gold Rush, into waterways. Environmental analysis by the California Department of Fish and Game identified several of the impacts:

  • Mobilizes and discharges toxic levels of mercury, harming drinking-water quality and potentially poisoning fish and wildlife.
  • Harms fish, amphibians and songbirds by disrupting habitat.
  • Causes substantial adverse changes statewide in American Indian cultural and historical resources.

The California Department of Fish and Game issued regulations for suction dredge mining in spring 2012 that would have caused significant environmental impacts during the two-year process in which the moratorium came into effect. In testimony before an Assembly budget committee earlier this year, the director of the California Department of Fish and Game, Chuck Bonham, asked for direction from the legislature on the suction dredge mining program. In response, the legislation directed the Department to work with the Native American Heritage Commission, State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Public Health and others to create a suction dredge program that does not have significant environmental impacts.

This article courtesy of press release from: Center for Biological Diversity, Karuk Tribe, The Sierra Fund, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, Friends of the River.

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Background information on proposed state regulations governing suction dredge mining, from Jim Ricker's article for the Summer 2011 Community, will be posted shortly. Here are comments submitted to the California Fish and Game Department by NFARA, by FAC, the Foothills Angler Coalition, by the Placer County Board of Supervisors, and by the Placer County Agricultural Commission.

These questions were asked following my KVMR interview on Saturday, May 7, 2011, via email. Bill Carnazzo, Foothills Angler Coalition Vice President and avid angler, has answered them. Please let me know if the following findings have been disproved or you have additional information.

Bill Carnazzo's responses are based on information from the studies cited in the draft SEIR published by DFG, along with its proposed regulations, and on personal knowledge accumulated over many years of on-the-river observation:

  1. Question: Most miners with valid claims are stewards of the rivers they work, protecting their interests as well. Their regulated suction practices remove the mercury along with the gold, and the mercury is not returned to the river, but stored and disposed of properly by the miners.
    Answer: It is generally (although not universally) true that some elemental Hg is pulled from the substrate by dredges, and removed via the sluice that receives the pump effluent. The SEIR contains some statistics on how much is actually removed--which is very little. It is not clear how many miners observe proper disposal practices because it involves effort and expense. The main issue with Hg resuspension via the dredging process is not elemental Hg; rather, it is the "methylization" of Hg when it is exposed, in small-particle form, to UV light and Oxygen. Methylized Hg is highly toxic, in that it is absorbed into virtually every cell in aquatic organisms. It has been shown scientifically that it causes birth defects in humans, and is carcinogenic. Thus, the marginal benefit of removal of minor amounts of elemental Hg is far outweighed by the damage to aquatic life, and ultimately to human life, caused by methylized Hg.

  2. Question: An end result of the practice of regulated suction dredging actually enhances the quality of the gravel beds necessary during spawning season. On dammed rivers, the natural spring high water "first flush" that natures uses for that purpose is sometimes impeded during low water years effecting the results of the spawn.
    Answer: All of the science used in the DFG analyses of the effects of dredging on spawning habitat for trout and anadromous fish reaches the conclusion that the effects are deleterious and in some cases permanent. Dredging, in order to be successful in terms of gold production, requires that the dredger get down to bedrock where the gold is located (along with the other heavy metal, elemental Hg). Spawning gravels are completely removed from the substrate, and large rocks (which have a protective effect on the substrate) are displaced and moved to the side of the river. While some of the displaced substrate does wash downstream, and some is replenished in the winter and spring when the natural hydrograph (in most years) results in pulse flows, the recovery cycle for substrate differs from that of spawning fish. In other words, there is a cyclic disconnect between substrate recovery and fish spawning. In turn, this produces a downward spiral in fish production. In short, the substrate disturbance by dredgers creats an unnatural adverse effect on the river, which disturbs spawning activity.

  3. Question: Sediment flush happens every spring regardless of human intervention. It is just nature's way.
    Answer: It is, in a very general way, true that the spring hydrograph results in initiation of silt and gravel motion in some cases; the same can be said of the silts that are introduced into the water column by dredging, and deposited elsewhere. What is clear, however, is that dredging reintroduces silt to the water column and upper levels of substrate, when it would otherwise have remained buried. In turn, this silt contains small particles of Hg, which is easily methylized, with the adverse effects of that process as mentioned above.

In summary, the mining community is prone to making general, mostly unsupported claims and trotting out handy one-liners that oversimplify a hugely complicated set of issues. The truth is that all of the credible science supports the conclusion that all of the effects of dredging on rivers are adverse and significant to the individual river being dredged.

Updated 9/15/14

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