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Gold on the river Bottom

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Karuk Tribe has joined fishermen and conservationists in a taxpayer lawsuit against the California Department of Fish and Game claiming tax money is being used illegally to fund suction dredge gold mining in California rivers.

It’s about fish and mercury. The mercury is leftover from Gold Rush days when it was used to collect gold from sluice boxes lining northern California’s rivers. An estimated 26 million pounds of mercury were used, 13 million pounds of which were lost to the waters and soil of the Sierra Nevada and Trinity mountains.

Suction dredges powered by gasoline or diesel engines are mounted on floating platforms. Gravel and sand are sucked up from the river bottom and sifted for gold. A Karuk tribal member says dredging, a virtual vacuuming of river bottoms, disturbs the deposited mercury and re-introduces it into the food chain.

“They call it ‘flowering’,” Karuk spokesman Craig Tucker said. “Mercury likes to coagulate in clumps. Run it through a dredge and it sprays the mercury in a fine mist back into the water. It’s picked up by fish that people might catch and eat. Swimmers, kayakers and rafters downstream from dredging could come in contact with it. Not only is dredging creating problems for fish, it’s creating problems for people.”

In the late 1990s mining clubs were formed made up of a group of mining claims. Membership gave miners access to a number of claims. “What we saw was a big proliferation in the amount of dredging going on,” Tucker said. “What had been something with a nominal impact became significant just through the volume of gold miners in the area.”

In 1997, coho salmon were listed as threatened on the Environmental Protection Agency’s endangered species list, and lamprey were listed as a species of special concern. “That should have triggered a rewrite of California Department of Fish and Game mining rules and regulations – but it didn’t,” Tucker adds.

“We ended up suing Fish and Game in 2005 for failure to update their rules and regulations. We won and the court directed them to rewrite the rules by June of 2008. They didn’t. So we won, but we didn’t win, so what should we do now?”

At the beginning of the year, the Karuk Tribe filed a petition with the director of Fish and Game saying, in effect, “You have emergency powers to shut down fishing when fish populations are in an emergency state; you should also shut down dredge mining. When fishermen can’t fish, other users who have a negative impact on fish populations should also have to restrict their activities,” Tucker said.

“They refused to entertain our petition.”

Now the tribe has brought a taxpayer lawsuit. Joining them in the action are Friends of the North Fork, a conservation group, and California Trout, an organization representing fishermen.

“In California it is illegal to use taxpayer money for illegal things, and what we are alleging is that according to their own rules and regulations Fish and Game can’t give out dredging permits unless they have proven that the activity does not create harm for fish,” Tucker said. “In our original lawsuit, Fish and Game’s own biologist testified that dredging has harmful effects on fish. We think there should be a moratorium on all dredging permits until they’ve done the science.”

In a collateral move, Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Calif., has introduced SB 670, a bill that would impose a dredging moratorium. “It picked up Republican votes getting out of the first committee, the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee,” Tucker said. “I think we have a good opportunity with the legislature and a good opportunity with the court system. It’s a problem we’re intent on solving and we’re going to use every strategy at our disposal to solve it.” SB 670 recently passed the California Senate by a 31-8 vote.

“Changes mandated by the Karuk Tribe’s successful 2005 lawsuit are just now getting started,” Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, CEO of the Sierra Fund, said. “They expect to be done in January of 2011.” A proposed state Senate bill calls for a moratorium until those new regulations are in effect. Martin hopes the moratorium will be in place before the summertime suction dredging season begins.

“We are concerned that the well-documented impacts of suction dredging on water quality and endangered species will continue. ... despite evidence of the harm.” Last year the Sierra Fund published a ground-breaking report, “Mining’s Toxic Legacy,” on the effects of toxins, especially mercury, left behind in the rush for gold.

In April 2008, state and federal agencies closed California waters to recreational and commercial salmon fishing due to declining fish populations.

“Until major river restoration projects are done we’ll have a salmon population crisis in California,” Tucker concludes. “The suction dredgers are one of many factors contributing to the decline of salmon. If we end suction dredge mining, it’s not going to be any kind of a silver bullet solution. But, it’s something we can do today to start putting our rivers back together.”