Dredging up old mistakes: Will Harmful Suction Dredge Gold Mining Return To California’s Rivers?

Suction_dredge_mining

State Water Board Seeking Public Comments Now!

Take Action! The State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) has the responsibility to regulate suction dredge mining under the federal Clean Water Act. The SWRCB is seeking public comments to inform the development of its regulations. The SWRCB could develop regulations or restrictions on when and where one could dredge, limit the size of the dredging device, or determine that this activity cannot be done at all in compliance with the law.

Big picture.

Suction dredge gold mining of our rivers and streams degrades water quality and puts public health at risk by mobilizing toxic mercury left in the river beds from historic mining. It also chronically disturbs fish and wildlife habitat and sensitive cultural and historical sites along rivers. In 2012, the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) determined that adverse suction dredge mining impacts on water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and cultural/historical sites were significant and unavoidable. Soon after, the California Legislature passed a moratorium on suction dredge mining until the CDFW adopted new regulations reducing these impacts to insignificant, but the CDFW has been unable to do so.

Meanwhile, miners have a case before the California Supreme Court challenging the moratorium and CDFW’s inadequate regulations. The miners claim that the federal government has the sole authority to regulate mining under the weak and antiquated 1892 federal mining law. Concerned that the state moratorium may be overturned in court, the California Legislature in 2015 authorized the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to regulate suction dredge mining under the federal Clean Water Act. This means that if the current mining moratorium is overturned in court, miners would still be required to secure a water quality permit under federal law from the SWRCB before they could start mining and polluting our rivers.

The SWRCB is now seeking public input for the development of new water quality regulations for suction dredge mining. A series of public workshops are scheduled in January and written comments will be accepted by Feb. 28, 2017. The health of our rivers, which provide clean drinking water, habitat for fish and wildlife, and our cultural and historical legacy, is at stake. Please attend one of the public workshops and write a comment email today.

Background.  

Many California rivers and reservoirs are mercury-impaired due to the legacy of historic gold mining. Suction dredge mining disturbs the mercury lying in the river bed and sends it downstream in a toxic plume that violates public health and water quality standards. There are 178 rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs in California officially impaired by toxic mercury, including the twelve largest water supply reservoirs in the state. Consumers are typically warned to limit or avoid consumption of fish from impaired waterbodies due to high toxic mercury levels. Renewed suction dredge mining will only increase mercury pollution.

In their search for gold, suction dredge miners overturn the river bed and send a toxic plume of sediment downstream, causing chronic disturbance of fish and wildlife habitat. This chronic disturbance has significant and unavoidable impacts on threatened and endangered populations of salmon, steelhead, and other native fish. Suction dredge operations also result in harm to riverside riparian habitat, with adverse impacts on wildlife (many of which are also threatened and endangered). Mining operations also disturb Native American cultural and historic sites located along rivers.

A 2008 CDFW survey found that 78% of miners dredge recreationally, which means that small scale suction dredge gold mining is primarily a recreational hobby in California. For years, CDFW permit fees failed to cover the costs of the permit program which means taxpayers were subsidizing pollution of their own water supply to the tune of $1.5 million dollars a year! The real economic costs of the water pollution produced by mining and the harm to fish, wildlife, and cultural resources, has never been adequately assessed. Even our state and federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers and Wild Trout Streams are not protected from suction dredge mining!  


Take Action! The SWRCB now has the responsibility to regulate suction dredge mining under the federal Clean Water Act. The SWRCB is seeking public comments to inform the development of its regulations. The SWRCB could develop regulations or restrictions on when and where one could dredge, limit the size of the dredging device, or determine that this activity cannot be done at all in compliance with the law.

  1. Send a comment email by Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 (use the sample email or info below as framework to your letter.)
    1. Include this in your subject line: Comment Letter—Potential Actions To Protect Water Quality From Suction Dredge Mining
    2. By Mail: State Water Resources Control Board Div. of Water Quality – NPDES Unit, P.O. Box 100 Sacramento, CA 95812-0100
    3. By email: suctiondredgecommentletters@waterboards.ca.gov
  2. Speak at a Public Workshop.
    1. Tuesday, January 17, 2017 | Fresno
    2. Wednesday, January 18, 2017 |San Bernardino
    3. Tuesday, January 24, 2017 | Orleans
    4. Wednesday, January 25, 2017 | Redding
    5. Monday, February 6, 2017 |Sacramento
  3. Review the SWRCB’s scoping information,  visit: http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/npdes/docs/revised_notice_suction_dredging_pub.pdf

Need more information about this alert? Please contact Steve Evans at sevans@friendsoftheriver.org.