First they came for the timber industry

Now the radical enviros are after the gold miners of California and Oregon whose small suction dredges have worked gold bearing streams in the mountains for at least the last 50 years. In recent years they have proliferated with the increasing price of gold, but, those streams of northern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains were first worked by the pioneering forty-niners.

Today’s miners bring gold out of stream beds with a portable dredging device, operated by one or two miners. The dredging device consists of a 4 or 6 inch diameter nozzle powered by a small motor which traps heavy metals in a header box with riffles on its floor. The rocks and sand flow out the back of the box back into the stream bed.

This process removes not only the gold but the heavy non-native toxic metal detritus (horseshoes, nails, cans, etc) as well as mercury which was used by 19th century miners to extract the gold. All parties acknowledge that over 2.5 tons of mercury has been removed from California’s Sierra streams by the gold miners during the last 50 years.

At the urging of environmental groups and the Karuk indian tribe, who alleged damage to fish and fish habitat, the state of California placed a moratorium on suction dredging in 2009 to last until 2016.

A state Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was required before dredging could resume.

The 1,388 page EIR was issued on March 16, 2012 at a cost exceeding 1.5 million dollars. The EIR uses the words “may”, “might” or “could” more than 1,200 times while using the word “proven” not once. The EIR fails to document lasting damage to fish or fish habitat.

The disruption of the stream bed in some cases washed away safe areas for the fish to deposit eggs but in other cases increased sandy areas the fish use to spawn. But, the EIR found that whatever damage is done by the suction dredging is washed away in the spring floods and the streams repair themselves.

However, the EIR concludes that suction mining causes damage that cannot be mitigated by assuming that the streams are pristine and have never been mined before.

On April 12, multiple mining companies, property rights groups, and engineering firms sued the state alleging that the EIR was improperly drafted. Ironically, the environmental groups have also sued alleging that the EIR was not strong enough.

The same gold rush is running into environmental opposition in Oregon.

The Oregon Department of State Lands records over 3,000 active suction dredge miners. Environmental studies in Oregon indicate that the (not so dumb) fish avoid the “plume” of sand and rocks coming out of the back of the dredge and are not harmed. This has Oregon environmentalists up in arms demanding a California style moratorium.

Miners are fighting back asserting their rights federal mining law of 1872. The miners point out that they are not using heavy machinery or big bucket dredges that permanently alter the streams.

Back in California, the Fish and Game Department has proposed new regulations even though the moratorium on dredging won’t expire until 2016. After the moratorium expires, annual dredging permits would be reduced from 4,000 to 1,500 and dredging would be prohibited altogether on 20 northern California streams and rivers.

Other proposed regulations would prohibit transferring a suction dredge from one stream to another stream for two weeks to avoid “contamination”. Hours of dredging would be limited to 10am to 4pm and two dredges operating on the same stream must be at least 500 feet apart. After further public comment, dredges were banned from 7 more streams in Shasta County and 17 streams in Siskiyou County.

Here’s the weird twist to this story.

Environmental groups (there’s a ???friends of??? group for just about every river and stream in the Sierras) want the mercury recovery to continue. One of these groups, the Sierra Fund, has said that “dredging for mercury will require a permit with a chemistry background”.

A letter to the editor in the Grass Valley Union (a newspaper that traces back to the original 1850 gold rush) said that a dredge manufacturer in Idaho had been contacted by an organization associated with the EPA about making a dredge for recovering mercury. The letter writer asserts that this tax supported dredge will do the work the free market miners were willing to do for free.

And if some gold happens to collect in the riffles of this ???mercury recovery??? dredge, all the better for the environmental groups.