OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - The Karuk Tribe and nine environmental groups claim in court that the California Department of Fish and Game approved suction dredge mining in state rivers, again, without proper environmental review.
The Karuk, the Center for Biological Diversity and others filed the writ of mandate petition in Alameda County Court.
Suction dredge mining is a way to mine for gold in the riverbeds, streams and lakes. Motorized pumps vacuum up water and sediment, which is passed over a sluice box mounted to a floating pontoon. Dense particles such as gold are caught in the sluice box and the rest of the sediment is dumped back into the river.
Suction dredge mining is used primarily by recreational and hobbyist gold miners, who need annual permits from the Department of Fish and Game. The permit entitles miners to suction-dredge any river in California, under agency guidelines.
The Karuk, a tribe of about 3,300, have their administrative center in Happy Camp, in the Klamath Forest near the Oregon state line. Their ancestral homeland is along the Klamath River and fish and fishing are central to their traditions and way of life.
The Karuk say the department began issuing suction dredge mining permits in 1994. The state said then that rivers inhabited by threatened or endangered species must be closed to suction dredge mining to prevent harm to these species, and that periodical reviews of the regulations must be done to account for future listings of endangered species.
In 1997, the department drafted a new environmental impact report and proposed amendments to the regulations, which were never implemented. The Karuk Tribe filed its first action against Fish and Game in 2005 for failing to update its regulations. During the course of that litigation, the department submitted sworn declarations that its suction dredge program violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its own codes, and had determined that "suction dredge mining caused deleterious effects on the endangered coho salmon in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon Rivers," according to Karuk's new complaint.
Fish and Game was ordered to conduct a CEQA review of its regulations on suction dredge mining and endangered species in the watersheds of the three rivers in 2006. The court gave the agency until 2008 to complete its review - a deadline which Fish and Game missed, but the agency continued to issue suction dredge mining permits anyway, the Karuk say.
The Karuk sued again in 2009 to enjoin the department from issuing any more permits until it had completed its review, which the court granted. California's Legislature also weighed in, passing Senate Bill 670, forbidding Fish and Game from issuing any more permits until it had completed all environmental reviews and adopted updates to its regulations.
Fish and Game finally issued its draft environmental review in 2011, 2½ years after the original court order. The Karuk say that draft acknowledged "significant and unavoidable impacts to water quality and toxicology, biological resources, cultural resources, noise, and cumulatively significant impacts to water quality and wildlife resources. ...