clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Lawsuit challenges suction dredges for gold mining

An Indian tribe, conservation groups and salmon fishermen filed a lawsuit challenging the return of suction dredges to mine for gold in California rivers.

The lawsuit was filed late Monday in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, Calif., against the California Department of Fish and Game.

It claims the process to develop dredging regulations didn't follow state environmental law and the regulations themselves fail to adequately protect salmon and tribal cultural resources.

"These regulations will give recreational suction dredgers a license to pollute some of the most scenic and ecologically sensitive rivers in California," Steve Evans of Friends of the River, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement.

The dredges are powerful underwater vacuums that suck up rocks, gravel and sand from riverbeds to filter out gold. Environmentalists say the process destroys salmon habitat by changing the contours of streambeds, releasing toxic mercury leftover from the Gold Rush, and generating silt that chokes spawning beds.

The fish and game department had not been served and could not comment on the lawsuit until it had a chance to review it, said spokeswoman Jordan Traverso.

The lawsuit was the latest development in a long-running battle by the Karuk Tribe on the Klamath River to stop hobby gold miners.

"Until the moratorium was passed, gold miners were still allowed to destroy our rivers, our fisheries, and our culture," Leaf Hillman of the Karuk Tribe said in a statement. "Fish and game will let them resume the destruction in 2016 unless the new regulations are dramatically improved."

The tribe originally sued the department in 2005, and the California Legislature issued a seven-year moratorium in 2009. The new regulations allowing dredging to resume were issued by the department last month in response to the original lawsuit.

Though it will take a few months to gain final approval, the moratorium won't let the new regulations take effect until 2016.

Since the dredges were banned in California, hobby miners have been heading north to Oregon to hunt for gold.

The new regulations authorize the sale of 1,500 permits on a first-come, first-served basis but do not specify price.

Miners must keep a log of dredge operations. Dredges are limited to 8-inch nozzles on major rivers, and 4-inch nozzles on others. Dredging must occur in the water at least 3 feet from the riverbank. Heavy equipment cannot be used to move material, and dredges must stay 500 feet away from each other.

The regulations include a county-by-county list of which rivers are open and closed to dredging, and when dredging is allowed.