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County pans DFG’s dredge study

Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor

Plumas County supervisors have weighed in on the California Department of Fish and Game’s draft environmental review of its suction dredge mining program. The last day to comment on the impact report was May 10. The supervisors approved a letter to DFG at their May 3 meeting.

DFG released its draft subsequent environmental impact report Feb. 28. The study concluded that continuing the current moratorium on suction dredge mining was the best thing for the environment.

The next preferable alternative would be to cut the number of suction dredge permits by more than half — from an average of 3,650 over the past 15 years to 1,500 annually — while limiting dredging to 14 days a year for each permit holder and reducing the allowable nozzle size from 8 inches to 4.

The study was the result of a lawsuit, spearheaded by the Karuk tribe, which argued that the practice was harming fish habitat by churning up pollutants deposited in streambeds by a century and a half of mining activity. In 2009, a court ordered the agency to overhaul its regulations and issued an injunction to prevent it from processing any permits until it had done so.

The Legislature followed up in August 2009 with a bill, signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to temporarily ban suction dredging on all California rivers and lakes.

In introducing the issue at the May 3 board meeting, Chairwoman Lori Simpson said, “We do understand the concern — I want to make that clear — about preserving habitat for fish. But there’s a lot of issues I think, still, that haven’t been addressed.”

In their letter, the supervisors take the agency to task on several topics. They point out that although Plumas and Sierra counties have the most permit holders for suction mining, 112 and 115 respectively, DFG did not hold a public meeting in either county. The board requests that the agency do so.

The supervisors also criticize what they call the department’s one-size-fits-all approach. They point out that the lawsuit addressed harm to coho salmon in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon watersheds, but Plumas County does not have coho salmon. Plumas County “should have been reviewed for its own specifics,” wrote the board.

The supervisors say DFG also failed to sufficiently address the economic impacts of the moratorium. Plumas County has lost $21,878 in recording fees from mining claim filings since the moratorium went into effect in 2009.

As for the claim that suction dredge mining churns up mercury from stream bottoms, the county says DFG’s own survey results dispute it. The supervisors ask the department to “work with suction dredge miners to encourage and/or require the removal of mercury and proper disposal.”

The board also wants to see the agency refund permit fees that were collected in 2009, when the moratorium prevented permit holders from mining. DFG collected $250,000 in fees that year for the program, which costs the agency $1.25 million annually.

The proposed allowable time for suction dredging poses a problem in Plumas County, say the supervisors. DFG proposes to change the months for dredging from July through September to October through January. They say such a schedule does not take into consideration weather conditions that limit access to mining claims.

The supervisors also argue it’s not clear what on-the-ground research the agency has done. They question the establishment of a new “baseline” that assumes no suction dredge mining.

Finally, the board challenges why the study did not address the environmental impacts of other waterway users, like anglers, hunters, swimmers, kayakers, campers, hikers, equestrians and cyclists. “To single out one recreational hobby against others requires more justification,” the letter says.

“We represent a diverse population of people in our county and would like to achieve the best balance to fit the many interests represented with the most thorough evidence and research to support any new regulations proposed on suction dredge mining,” the letter concludes.

DFG anticipates it will issue its final study and decision in late fall 2011.


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