California Halts Harmful Suction Dredge River Mining

Budget Bill Saves Taxpayers Money, Protects Natural Resources

SACRAMENTO, 5 July 2012—California Gov. Jerry Brown late Wednesday continued the current moratorium on the controversial gold-mining technique known as “suction dredge mining” until the state develops regulations that pay for the program and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources. The new law also directs the state’s Department of Fish and Game, which regulates suction dredge mining, to work with public-health, water and tribal authorities in a review of the practice.

Suction dredge mining, which mines for gold using machines that vacuum up gravel and sand from river bottoms, often pollutes rivers and water supplies by reintroducing mercury from historic mining. According to numerous studies and expert testimony, it harms wildlife by destroying habitat for fish, amphibians and songbirds, and damages American Indian cultural and historical resources.

“Suction dredge mining is a net loser for the state of California: It pollutes our waterways with toxic mercury, harms endangered fish and wildlife, hurts cultural resources, wastes taxpayer money and poses a significant threat to public health,” said Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, chief executive officer of The Sierra Fund.

The new law continues the current moratorium on suction dredge mining until new rules “fully mitigate all identified significant environmental impacts” and a “fee structure is in place that will fully cover all costs” to administer the program. Assembly Bill 1018 clarified the existing temporary moratorium on the practice that was set to expire in 2016.

“This common-sense law protects wildlife and waterways from toxic mercury and safeguards California’s cultural heritage,” said Jonathan Evans, toxics and endangered species campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“After efforts to reach a compromise were rejected by the miners, we had no choice to pursue the moratorium. Now we can rest assured that our cultural and fisheries resources are no longer at risk from dredge miners,” said Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Gov. Jerry Brown both approved temporary moratoriums on suction dredge mining in 2009 and 2011 respectively because the practice repeatedly violated environmental laws.

“Ending harmful suction dredge mining protects jobs and family-owned businesses which rely on healthy salmon fisheries,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the West Coast’s largest trade association of commercial fishing families.

Legislative analysis found that the suction dredge mining program has cost California taxpayers more money than it earns; it lost close to $1 million in 2009. The new law requires any new permit programs to cover all program costs and be revenue neutral.

“California can’t afford to subsidize toxic mining that is a disaster for California’s rivers,” said Steve Evans, wild rivers project director for Friends of the River.




Suction dredge mining has a history of controversy. California courts have repeatedly confirmed that it violates state laws and poses threats to wildlife. In April a coalition of environmental, tribal and fisheries groups filed suit to stop the suction dredge mining program. Earlier this month the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that recreational gold mining using suction dredges requires miners to analyze whether they’ll harm protected species like salmon, steelhead trout or California red-legged frogs.

The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies; it damages habitat for sensitive, threatened and endangered fish and frogs and releases toxic mercury plumes, left over from the Gold Rush, into waterways.

Environmental analysis by the California Department of Fish and Game identified several of the impacts:

  • Mobilizes and discharges toxic levels of mercury, harming drinking-water quality and potentially poisoning fish and wildlife;
  • Harms fish, amphibians and songbirds by disrupting habitat;
  • Causes substantial adverse changes statewide in American Indian cultural and historical resources.

The California Department of Fish and Game issued regulations for suction dredge mining in spring 2012 that would have caused significant environmental impacts during the two-year process in which the moratorium came into effect. In testimony before an Assembly budget committee earlier this year, the director of the California Department of Fish and Game, Chuck Bonham, asked for direction from the legislature on the suction dredge mining program. In response, the legislation directed the Department to work with the Native American Heritage Commission, State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Public Health and others to create a suction dredge program that does not have significant environmental impacts.


The Sierra Fund is dedicated to increasing private and public investment in the natural resources and communities of the Sierra Nevada.  Our Mining Initiative documents the devastating impact of abandoned mines on California’s water, wildlife and people.


The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 375,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Karuk Tribe is the second largest federally recognized Indian Tribe in California. The Karuk have been in conflict with gold miners since 1850. Karuk territory is along the middle Klamath and Salmon Rivers.

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is trade association of commercial fishermen on the west coast dedicated to assuring the rights of individual fishermen and fighting for the long-term survival of commercial fishing as a productive livelihood and way of life.

Friends of the River protects and restores California rivers by influencing public policy and inspiring citizen action. With more than 5,000 members, Friends of the River is California’s statewide river conservation organization.