Fish & Game Issues new suction dredge regulations – but they won’t take effect until July 1, 2016

NEVADA CITY, 29 March 2012 – The California Department of Fish and Game issued new regulations for suction dredge mining in California late Friday March 16, 2012.  These regulations stem from a year-long rule-making process and were adopted just one day before the rule-making process either needed to be completed or started over again.

The rules do not meet the standards adopted by the California Legislature and signed into law by Governor Brown.  Those standards created a moratorium on DFG’s suction dredge mining permit program until:

  • a new regulatory program is enacted that protects the environment from harm and a fee structure adopted that pays for the cost of enforcing the suction dredge program, OR
  • July 1, 2016.

“These regulations fall short of the requirements set by the California legislature  by allowing a program that will result in significant cultural and environmental harms,” notes Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin of The Sierra Fund.  “Since these regulations do not provide the protections required by the Legislature, the Department’s regulations are basically going to sit on a shelf until July 1, 2016.”

The mitigation measures proposed in the new regulations, such as reducing the number of permits to be issued and the density of suction dredges will not eliminate the myriad of harms to fish, wildlife, and cultural resources that the proposed suction dredge regulations cause, including:

a.   Water Quality Impacts from mercury: These regulations allow suction dredge mining in rivers that have been found to be “mercury impaired” under the Clean Water Act.  A primary concern of the State Water Resources Control Board has been the impact of suction dredge mining in rivers already known to be contaminated with mercury and where suction dredging for gold has been clearly established to disturb and change mercury into a deadly toxic in our state’s water.

b.  Cultural Impacts: These regulations do not properly address the need for suction dredge miners to observe the most basic laws surrounding sacred and cultural site protections and allow activities that would permanently harm or destroy important cultural resources.  They do not provide proper mechanisms to avoid significant impacts to sacred and cultural sites.

c. Impacts on wildlife and birds: These regulations allow activities that pose threats to wildlife species and their habitats, including on the special status passerines (birds). 

In addition, the new regulations allows suction dredge mining in places where this activity is prohibited by law. The list of areas where suction dredge mining is allowed under the Department’s permit includes a number of areas where suction dredge mining is considered illegal by other governmental agencies such as state parks or tribal governments.The new regulations also permit suction dredge mining in streams that provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered fish and wildlife.

The issuance of these new regulations has created some confusion among suction dredge miners, many of whom think that suction dredge permits will be issued this year.  The Department of Fish and Game has sent out clarifications and put information on their website to clarify that the new program cannot take effect before July 2016.

The announcement that new regulations had been adopted that did not meet the new legislative standards also created concern among some of the legislators that adopted the moratorium last year with the intent of supporting development of a suction dredge mining program that did not create significant impacts.

The Sierra Fund is working with a coalition of groups including tribal governments, conservation organizations and others to both clarify the current status of the suction dredge program and propose alternatives.