Assembly Committee passes SB 670 unanimously

SACRAMENTO, 17 JUNE 2009 – After an emotional hearing at the California Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee on Tuesday morning, committee members showed unanimous, bi-partisan support for SB 670 (Wiggins) with a vote of 11-0.  This bill would place a moratorium on recreational suction dredge mining due to the negative effects that this type of hobby mining has on fish, habitat, and the spread of mercury left over from California’s Gold Rush.

Senator Pat Wiggins (D, Santa Rosa) states in SB 670 that “the bill will prohibit suction dredge mining in rivers and streams that provide critical habitat to spawning salmon until [Department of Fish and Game] completes its court-ordered overhaul of regulations governing this recreational activity.” The Senator goes on to state that suction dredging disturbs streambeds, kills fish eggs and immature eels, and churns up mercury left over from the gold mining era. “Our salmon fisheries in particular are in crisis, with salmon fishing banned along the California coast for the second year in a row, affecting the livelihoods of thousands of commercial fishermen and others,” Senator Wiggins says, “while allowing status quo for recreational gold mining.”

The Sierra Fund CEO, Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin testified to the committee that during the Gold Rush, 13 million pounds of mercury were lost into the environment in the course of mining activities, and that suction dredging “explodes this Gold Rush-era mercury like a bag of flour,” greatly increasing the likelihood that said mercury will become toxic methyl-mercury, a potent neurotoxin that is contaminating the State’s fish and endangering the health of the people and wildlife that consume those fish.

Martin also commented about the many problems associated with the elemental mercury that suction dredge miners publically admit finding, sometimes in large quantities, while mining.  “Current suction dredge permit regulations are silent on the rules regarding handling, storage, transportation and disposal of mercury recovered as part of the mining activity. While some miners handle this hazardous material responsibly, we know that some are throwing in the trash, down the toilet, back into the river, or worse, burning it off to find the gold within.  This is an example of how out-dated the regulations really are, and how urgent the case is for reforming those rules based on a rigorous environmental review.” 

Representatives of the Karuk Tribe, Cal-Trout, and numerous advocates representing tribal and conservation interests testified in favor of the bill.

Opponents of the bill have made numerous unsubstantiated accusations in the past, which continued at Tuesday’s hearing.  More than half a dozen miners testified in opposition to the bill. Under repeated questioning from Legislators, however, suction dredge mining advocates were unable to back up many of their claims, including claims that SB 670 supporters had tried to sabotage funding for the court-mandated California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) environmental review. 
SB 670 now moves to the Assembly Appropriations Committee and then to the full Assembly for a vote.  If passed, it will come to the Governor for his signature or veto. SB 670 is an “Urgency” bill, so if passed with a 2/3rd’s vote in the Assembly and if signed by the Governor, it will go into effect immediately.