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"We took guys who were earning a living and put them on the welfare rolls, how's that a good deal?"
RENO, NV, December 25, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/ -- There are no presents under Rick's tree this year, the same as the previous three years. Rick is a gold miner. In 2009 California banned miners like Rick from working their mining claims. Before the ban, during the summer months, he could recover enough gold to last him through the year. He ran a gold suction dredge on the American River. His equipment now sits idle, awaiting the outcome of a series of lawsuits to determine his fate.
In response to pressure from environmental groups, the state conducted their third review of suction gold mining in 2009. The study concluded the miners could be stirring up silt, and the noise might disturb protected birds or frogs. The 2009 report reversed course from a 1994 report which found the gold miners had minimal impact when operating within the regulations.
At the center of the controversy is the equipment used, known as a suction gold dredge. Gold is recovered from the river using a suction hose. The dredge sucks up gold like a vacuum cleaner. Miners claim they have removed tons of garbage, mercury and lead from the waterways. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) the average size of a gold dredge is 4", or about twice the size of a vacuum cleaner hose.
Since the 1950's the image of these small machines, floating on bright yellow pontoons, greeted the visitor to the Yuba and American Rivers. Rural towns like Happy Camp, in the northern part of the state, relied on the summer influx of miners to support their economy. In a recent lawsuit filing, Happy Camp business owners contend the state has destroyed their economy by continuing the ban despite reports indicating there are no lasting environmental effects from suction dredging.
From gold to food stamps
The California suction dredging ban prohibits the use of any motorized equipment to recover gold. According to statements issued by CDFW they still allow the use of gold pans and non-motorized equipment to search for gold.
"That's not mining," says Craig Lindsay, president of the Western Mining Alliance. "It's wasting time. A lot of people depended on some or all of their income from gold mining. The state has managed to destroy 150 years of history with the stroke of a pen."
"I know guys who were making good money," added Lindsay, "enough during the summer to carry them through the year. Those guys are now on food stamps. The environmental groups just say, 'oh, they can find other work.' But that's all they've done, is mine gold. This type of mining goes back 50 years. We have 2nd and 3rd generation miners working the family claim. The studies show all traces of mining is erased after the next flood, but even that's not good enough."
Environmentalists argue the fifty year old practice is harmful to the environment. Miners respond it's not true and claim the recent environmental impact report wildly exaggerated the impacts by ignoring the vast majority of research. They point to regulations which prohibit them from stepping on grass on the river bank as an example of how extreme the state has gone in trying to protect everything.
At issue is a state requirement which only applies to gold miners requiring complete mitigation for all effects. Miners claim it's impossible to meet this requirement when some of the effects include a prohibition on moving rocks. They claim the environmental impact report is biased and misled the public.
Environmentalists sued in 2005 claiming when a species is listed as endangered new environmental impact reports should be prepared evaluating the effects of people on the species. This unprecedented approach led to the prohibition on suction dredging while the effects were studied. The rest of California industry nervously awaits the final outcome of this decision.
Millions lost to the ban
One thing both sides agree on: it's expensive. According to public records, the state has spent over $4 million on the environmental impact report and related litigation. Prior to the ban, suction dredging was the second largest producer of gold in California, with a combined annual production of over 14,000 ounces. Miners point to studies which show no lasting effects from vacuum dredging and say the current ban is a waste of taxpayer money. "We took guys who were earning a living and put them on the welfare rolls, how's that a good deal?" Questions Lindsay.
The Western Mining Alliance is the largest organization of independent gold miners in the country. The Western Mining Alliance is working to return miners to work, and restore rural economies.
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