Mangiwau/FlickrGold miners test a river for gold using suction dredging techniques.
When it comes to protecting California watershed habitats, environmentalists rarely embrace budget cuts. But that is exactly what they are doing in response to a recent proposal to slash funding for gold mining permits.
Last month, legislators amended the proposed state budget to prohibit the California Department of Fish and Game from issuing new permits for the gold mining process known as suction dredging. They estimate it will save the state $1.8 million by eliminating costs associated with selling and databasing individual permits, sending biologists to collect information at various sites, and paying for wardens who must devote a portion of their time to enforcing the regulations.
Suction dredging involves using vacuum-like devices to suck up sediment from the river bottom and deposit the material into sluice boxes floating on the water. But environmentalists say it is damaging to fisheries that are already on the decline. Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the Karuk Indian Tribe in Northern California, said it has been “downhill” for the tribe since the first Gold Rush more than 150 years ago.
Some fish species, such as the lamprey, live in riverbed sediment for up to seven years during their larval stage, Tucker said, and are especially vulnerable to suction dredging.
“It's deadly to those species,” Tucker said.
Help us do more.
But many in the gold mining community believe that the decision to cut funding for the prospecting technique is being rushed and, that by extending the ban on suction dredging, lawmakers are putting an indefinite hold on gold mining's future.
Rachel Dunn, co-owner of the mining supply shop Gold Pan California, said the language of the extension “circumvents due process” by failing to consider public comment and implementing new regulations before the Department of Fish and Game completes its Environmental Impact Report in November. To date, the department has spent $1.2 million of the $1.5 million allocated by the state to complete the report, which remains in the draft stage.
“This kills the industry with zero debate. It's heinous,” said Dunn, one of many who spoke last month at a series of public hearings on the issue. Dunn said others at the hearings proposed raising permitting fees to offset inspection and administrative costs, rather than eliminating new permits. Revenue generated by permit sales amounted to about $200,000 annually prior to 2009, a far cry from the roughly $2 million it costs to run the program.
In addition to damaging fisheries, environmental groups say dredging reintegrates elemental mercury left behind by the first gold miners more than 150 years ago. Once in the water column, the particles can become methyl mercury, which studies have shown can cause brain damage.
Dunn disputed the issue, however, saying suction dredging removes 98 percent of the mercury particles in the water when the material is separated out in the sluice box. She said many of the areas where high levels of mercury are reported were first discovered by miners.
“It's really stunning that this is happening this way,” she said, adding that gold prospecting supports other areas of the economy, including tourism dollars from lodging and the sale of supplies. “Every citizen has mining rights, but with this, the entire state gets slapped.”
About 3,650 resident and non-resident dredging permits have been issued annually over the last 15 years. Gold prices, meanwhile, floated at a near-record high of $1,550 per ounce Monday.
Tucker said that regardless of mercury exposure issues, it is nearly impossible to dredge without adversely affecting the various fish species that inhabit the region collectively referred to as the “Mother Lode” – an area in Central California including the Feather, Yuba, Klamath, American and Kern rivers, among others, which serve as hot spots for mining activity. The current draft version of the Environmental Impact Report calls for stricter regulations of suction dredging; under previous Fish and Game requirements, it was limited to summer months and those areas deemed safe for fisheries.
“Different fish spawn at different times. You've got rivers like the (Klamath River) that are still ecologically sophisticated," Tucker said, adding that he was optimistic the proposed legislation would make it through. “The regulations in the past were not protective of fish. There are other ways of recovering gold, and they need to find them.”