Rick Eddy and Steve Tyler are gold bugs who think they are being robbed.
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Their problem is that they are suction dredgers. They ply the rivers in their raft-sized crafts in search of gold. Until recently they were able to make a good living at it. Department of Fish and Game regulations allowed any California resident or non-resident to obtain a suction dredge mining permit after paying a nominal fee. On average 3,650 of these permits were issued every year.
However in July of 2009, in response to a lawsuit brought against the DFG by the Karuk Tribe of California, the DFG stopped issuing suction dredge permits. The lawsuit contended that DFG’s administration of the suction dredging program violated the California Environmental Quality Act and various provisions of the Fish and Game Code.
Then in August of 2009, all California in-stream suction dredge mining was suspended when Gov. Schwarzenegger signed SB 670. The bill prohibited the use of vacuum or suction dredge equipment in any California river, stream or lake regardless if someone had an existing permit.
This law was followed by Assembly Bill 120, which was signed by Gov. Brown on July 26, 2011. The bill established a moratorium on all suction dredging until June 30, 2016.
These different measures have drawn an angry response from miners and local leaders. The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors has sent multiple resolutions to the governor and state Legislature asking them to rescind or amend SB 670 and AB 120. Supervisor Ray Nutting has taken the lead in sponsoring many of these resolutions.
“Nine out of 10 people using this method (of dredging) are doing so for recreational purposes only,” Nutting said. “These are good people and the impact of what they do is minimal. In fact suction dredging can actually improve the environment by removing mercury or other debris in the stream bed. Politics is dealing yet another death-blow to our economy.”
In response to the moratorium, different advocacy groups have sprung up to protect the rights of miners. One of these is a nonprofit group called Public Lands for the People (PLP). It has filed several lawsuits against state and federal agencies.
On Feb. 8 a federal court in Los Angeles will hear a request from PLP to issue a stay against SB 670 and AB 120 on the basis that the laws are unconstitutional and constitute a taking of private property. In the meantime, neither SB 670 nor any other provision of law authorizes DFG to issue refunds to current permit holders and violators of the law are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
Steve Tyler said that so far the moratorium has cost him 130 ounces of gold. At current prices that is over $200,000 in lost income. For Rick Eddy, it has cost him his livelihood. There has also been a cost to the California economy. According to an estimate by the PLP, it is costing California $100 million dollars a year in lost revenue.
The issue of balancing economic interests with environmental one is a touchy one in California. Miners like Rick and Steve note that while the original miners did pollute the rivers by washing down whole mountains, modern miners don’t do that, he said. “We care for the environment,” said Rick.
They also stated that the danger from mercury is overstated. Only 2 percent of the mercury they dredge goes back into the water, said Rick. The rest is captured along with an assortment of trash that has found its way into the America’s waterways including tons of aluminum cans, plastic bags and bottles, glass bottles, old shoes, clothing, boat paddles and other garbage which the dredgers pull up and remove. We’re actually helping to clean up the rivers,” said the miners.
Besides the gold, other valuables are also brought up through dredging. Steve has found metal pick ax heads and coins as well as a front lock musket and pepperbox pistol from the 1800s. Normally the wood would have rotted away but in this case Steve recovered the musket and pistol in fairly good condition.
Current laws do not prohibit or restrict non-motorized recreational mining activities such as panning for gold. They also do not prohibit or restrict other kinds of mining operations such as power sluicing, high banking, sniping or using a gravity dredge as long as gravel and earthen materials are not vacuumed with a motorized system from the river or stream.
Ultimately the issue will be settled by the science and in the courts. But in the meantime, Steve, Rick and other suction dredgers feel that they have been robbed of their rights and their livelihood.
“We don’t have a revenue problem, said Supervisor Nutting. “We have a regulatory problem,” The state is regulating us off our lands and taking our rights away.”