Judge Maintains Ban on Suction Dredge Mining
Judge Denies Motion to Allow Suction Dredge Mining This Summer
Legislative Fix Pending to Protect Drought-threatened Waterways
On June 23, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Gilbert Ochoa ruled against an attempt by the mining community to start suction dredge mining in California waterways this summer. The miners had asked the court to prevent the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) from enforcing the current moratorium on suction dredge mining (SDM). The moratorium, in place since 2009, is designed to prevent the mercury pollution and damage to wildlife, waterways and cultural resources caused by SDM until adequate rules are adopted.
"Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that our rivers and wildlife will be protected this summer from the toxic plumes of mercury that suction dredge mining releases," said Jonathan Evans, Environmental Health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "In this time of devastating drought, our water supplies are crucial to California's well-being. I really hope the legislature steps in to clarify the need to protect our dwindling water supplies from mining pollution."
Suction dredge mining uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. California law prohibits in-stream suction dredge mining until the state develops regulations that pay for the program and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has not completed those regulations.
According to the Siskiyou Daily News, miners relying on an earlier ruling from the same San Bernardino court returned to the waterways to dredge. They promptly began having run-ins with CDFW. Following the arrest of several miners, a request was filed with the court to issue an injunction barring the state from enforcing the rules that Judge Ochoa ruled in May are inconsistent with federal mining laws.
However, as reported in the Siskiyou Daily News, Judge Ochoa ruled that the injunction was denied, finding that the miners will not be irreparably harmed by the ongoing situation. Ochoa also noted that the ruling on which miners have relied to return to dredging (People v Rinehart) has since been put up for review by a higher court (California Supreme Court), making an injunction infeasible at this time.
This means the ban on suction dredge mining is still in effect and the Department of Fish and Wildlife will continue to enforce it. No suction dredge mining will be allowed (legally) for the foreseeable future. If anyone sees this activity on one of our streams, please report it to CALTIP at 1-888-334-2258.
The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies. It harms water supplies by suspending toxic mercury, sediment and heavy metals. The Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board urged a complete ban on SDM because of its significant impacts on water quality and wildlife. Suction dredge mining also threatens important cultural resources; the California Native American Heritage Commission has condemned its impacts on priceless tribal and archeological resources.
A current bill in the California legislature, Senate Bill 637 (Allen), would help establish stronger water-quality regulations to limit suction dredge mining pollution. If passed, it will require the State Water Board to adopt a Clean Water Act (CWA) permit to address the mercury contamination that occurs from SDM. It will also require miners to either have a CWA permit or a letter from the State Water Board saying no permit is required before the miner can obtain a suction dredge mining permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. S.B. 637 would help minimize the legal uncertainty regarding in-stream river mining, which is also being reviewed by the California Supreme Court in the People v. Rinehart case. The bill has passed the California Senate and is now with the state assembly.
"In light of our crashing fish populations, to allow the vacuuming up of our streambeds to search for gold defies common sense as well as being a war on fish," said Robert Wright, senior counsel for Friends of the River. "Happily, it now looks like sanity will prevail this summer."