SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court recently upheld a statewide moratorium on recreational suction dredge mining for gold, noting the regulations were valid for protecting water supplies, fisheries, wildlife and cultural resources.
Suction dredge miners asked the court to prevent the California Department of Fish and Wildlife from enforcing the current moratorium on the practice, which they consider destructive. The moratorium has been in place since 2009 and was designed to prevent mercury pollution and damage to wildlife, waterways and cultural resources caused by suction dredge mining.
A coalition of tribal, conservation and fisheries groups have been trying to uphold California’s laws regulating suction dredge mining, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Karuk tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Friends of the River and The Sierra Fund. These members of the coalition are represented by Lynne Saxton of Saxton & Associates, a water-quality and toxics-enforcement law firm.
“Suction dredging is a continuation of the genocidal legacy of gold miners that started over 150 years ago,” Leaf Hillman, the Karuk tribe’s director of natural resources, told the Northern California Record. “We will continue the fight to protect our cultural and natural resources from this reckless form of river mining.”
According to an Aug. 22 article in the Times Standard, suction dredge mining is described as a practice that uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold.
"It threatens important cultural resources and sensitive wildlife species, and the California Native American Heritage Commission has condemned its impacts on priceless tribal and archeological resources," the article said. "It pollutes waterways with mercury and sediment and destroys sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead trout, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds."
Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that suction dredging is a reckless hobby that tears up rivers and threatens waterways, salmon and other wildlife.
“In this time of drought and climate change, we can’t afford to have California’s waterways trashed by a small but vocal group of gold miners,” Evans told the Northern California Record.
According to the Times Standard article, the harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board sought a complete ban on suction dredge mining because of its significant impacts on water quality and wildlife from mercury pollution.
“The unanimous decision handed down by the California Supreme Court this morning correctly holds that state regulations protecting our riverbeds from being vacuumed up by suction dredge gold mining has not been preempted by federal law,” Friends of the River Senior Counsel, Bob Wright, told the Northern California Record. “This is a victory for sanity and common sense, as well as the effort to protect our crashing fish populations.”
The court's unanimous decision was a blow to miners, who argued that the ban essentially stopped gold mining because doing it by hand is labor intensive and makes the enterprise unprofitable.