Continuing the current moratorium on suction dredge mining is the best thing for the environment, says an environmental study released Feb. 28 by the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).
The next preferable alternative would be to cut the number of suction dredge permits by more than half — from an average of 3,650 over the past 15 years to 1,500 annually — while limiting dredging to 14 days a year for each permit holder and reducing the allowable nozzle size from 8 inches to 4.
The study is the result of a lawsuit, spearheaded by the Karuk tribe, which argued that the practice was harming fish habitat by churning up pollutants deposited in streambeds by a century and a half of mining activity. In 2009, a court ordered the agency to overhaul its regulations and issued an injunction to prevent it from processing any permits until it had done so.
The Legislature followed up in August 2009 with a bill, signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to temporarily ban suction dredging on all California rivers and lakes.
Suction dredging removes and returns material at the bottom of a stream, river or lake. A pump sucks up streambed material, passes it up through a suction hose and runs it across a recovery system floating at the surface. Gold, which is very heavy, is separated as the gravel and other material wash through the recovery system and back into the stream.
The moratorium set off howls of protest from counties where the mining practice is most common, including Plumas County. Assemblyman Dan Logue and Plumas County Supervisor Lori Simpson both protested the move. State Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) tried but failed to pass legislation that would have refunded suction mining permit fees for 2009 to affected miners. That year, DFG collected $250,000 in fees for nearly 4,000 permits. The program costs DFG $1.25 million annually.
State Sen. Ted Gaines introduced a bill last month that would repeal the moratorium, refund permit fees and require DFG to complete an economic impact report on the effects of the prohibition. The bill is an urgency measure and would require a two-thirds vote. It is now with the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
DFG is currently soliciting comments on its environmental study. The document evaluates the potential impacts of four alternatives:
•No Program Alternative, which would continue the existing moratorium;
•1994 Regulations Alternative, which would continue previous regulations in effect prior to the 2008 moratorium;
•Water Quality Alternative, which would include additional program restrictions for water bodies (such as portions of the Feather River) listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act; and
•Reduced Intensity Alternative, which would cut permits by 59 percent and otherwise restrict methods of operation to reduce environmental effects. Along with the No Program alternative, this one is considered an “environmentally superior” alternative.
The study is available for review at dfg.ca.gov/suctiondredge or by calling 225-2275.
The comment period runs through April 29. Comments may be submitted by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by postal mail to:
California Department of Fish and Game
601 Locust St.
Redding, CA 96001
The agency will hold five public meetings. The closest venues are Sacramento and Redding:
Tuesday, March 29, at 5 p.m.
Cal EPA Headquarters Building
Byron Sher Auditorium
1001 I St.
Thursday, March 31, at 5 p.m.
Shasta Senior Nutrition Program
100 Mercy Oaks Drive
DFG anticipates it will issue its final study and decision in late fall 2011.
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