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For Immediate Release, July 27, 2011

Contact:  Jonathan Evans, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 318
Steve Evans, Friends of the River, (916) 708-3155
Leaf Hillman, Karuk Tribe, (530) 627-3446      

California Extends Ban on Harmful River Mining; Protects Natural Resources, Saves Taxpayers Money

Sacramento, Calif.— California has extended a ban on harmful suction dredge mining that will protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources while saving taxpayers money. California Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed A.B. 120, which continues the current ban on suction dredge mining for five years or until the state adopts new rules that fully mitigate all significant impacts caused by mining and pay for the program.

This sensible law protects wildlife and waterways from toxic mercury and safeguards our cultural heritage,” said Jonathan Evans, toxics and endangered species campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “California can’t afford to subsidize toxic mining that hurts our wildlife and our water.”

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. It harms wildlife by destroying habitat for fish, amphibians and songbirds, and results in substantial statewide damage to American Indian cultural and historical resources.

“Governor Brown and the legislature realized that Fish and Game’s proposed regulations would have been a disaster for California rivers,” said Steve Evans, wild rivers project director for Friends of the River. “It’s now up to the agency to develop new, more effective regulations and an enforcement program that isn’t subsidized by the taxpayers.”

The new law establishes a five-year moratorium on suction dredge mining. It expires June 30, 2016 or when “new regulations fully mitigate all identified significant environmental impacts and that a fee structure is in place that will fully cover all costs” to administer the program. Environmental studies and scientific experts have repeatedly shown numerous significant impacts to water quality, wildlife and important American Indian cultural resources.

“While we would prefer the ban to be permanent, we will hail the extension on the moratorium a victory for fish and the people who depend on them — Indians and non-Indians alike,” said Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe.

Agency analysis revealed that the state of California spent more money processing new suction dredge mining permits than it received in revenue, wasting valuable taxpayer money on a destructive program. The new law requires that any new permit programs cover all costs of the program and are revenue neutral.

“This is a real win for Native Americans, fishermen, public health and the environment,” said Lynne Saxton, staff attorney at the Environmental Law Foundation, who represented the environmental and tribal groups in previous litigation. “It has taken two lawsuits and two acts of the legislature to put the necessary protections in place. Today’s legislation will ensure these protections are maintained for another five years —giving the Department ample time to develop a sustainable and self-funded program.”

Suction dredge mining has a history of controversy. California courts have repeatedly confirmed the suction dredge mining program violated state laws and poses threats to wildlife. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also approved a ban on suction dredge mining in 2009 because the practice repeatedly violated environmental laws.

Suction dredge mining for gold has been pervasive on many California rivers and streams for years. This form of mining uses a powerful motor and pump, attached to a hose that is used to suction up gravel from the stream bottom. Gold is then sorted out from the gravel, and the remaining sediment-laden water is flushed back into the stream. The adverse impacts of this mining are well documented by scientists and government agencies. Suction dredging can harm habitat for sensitive, threatened and endangered fish and frogs, as well as release toxic plumes of mercury left over from the Gold Rush into our waterways.

Environmental analysis by the California Department of Fish and Game identified several significant impacts caused by this mining practice, which:

  • Discharge toxic levels of mercury, harming drinking-water quality and potentially poisoning fish and wildlife;
  • Can harm fish, amphibians and songbirds by disrupting habitat;
  • Cause substantial adverse changes statewide in American Indian cultural and historical resources.

Despite these impacts the Department of Fish and Game issued proposed regulations for suction dredge mining in spring of 2011. But not only were the draft regulations confusing and poorly written, the agency deliberately avoided addressing significant water quality, wildlife, and cultural/historical impacts of mining. The draft regulations also opened to mining many rivers and streams that had been closed in the previous regulations and that provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered fish and amphibians.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Friends of the River protects and restores California rivers by influencing public policy and inspiring citizen action. With more than 5,000 members, Friends of the River is California’s statewide river conservation organization.

The Karuk Tribe is the second largest federally recognized Indian Tribe in California. The Karuk have been in conflict with gold miners since 1850. Karuk territory is along the middle Klamath and Salmon Rivers.

The Environmental Law Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the environmental and public health. ELF is legal counsel for the Karuk Tribe, fishermen’s organizations, environmentalists and river enthusiasts who have been litigating the harms of suction dredge mining for nearly six years. Appellate review of these parties’ achievements in court is pending.

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