Gold Prospectors Spot Loophole in State’s Dredge Mining Moratorium
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
Gold miners on the Salmon River have long seemed inventive. It should come as little surprise, then, that their brethren on the Klamath would come up with a ploy to evade the state’s moratorium on suction dredging.
With the price of gold cresting over $1600 per ounce and the legislature passing daunting regulatory hurdles, miners associated with a business called the New 49ers dredging club based in Happy Camp have come up with a loophole.
With a creativity that might impress a hedge fund manager looking for a tax dodge, they have suggested a way to suction gold particles out of the water without meeting the legal definition of the now-banned suction dredges.
The legal definition of a dredge includes a vacuum hose, a motorized pump and a sluice box, which together can suck up river gravels and then winnow them through the sluice to keep the gold particles and dump the gravel overburden.
The Karuk Tribe has long held that the dredging degrades water quality and alters streambeds enough that it threatens fish recovery. This argument carried special legal muscle because one species, coho salmon, is listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.
The campaign to better regulate dredging is one of several by the tribe, which, like the other tribes in the Klamath Basin, are trying to promote recovery of fish populations. The tribes are avid followers and even litigants in several court cases affecting water use.
In the case of dredging, the New 49ers website suggests leaving out the sluice, which technically makes it not a suction dredge operation under the law. A sluice is a kind of inclined three-sided box with many horizontal ridges along its bottom. The suction hose dumps the gravels across the ridges and they spill out the end in big piles. But the gold, which is much denser than ordinary sand, silt or gravel, collects behind the ridges or riffles.
Salmon River miners even have an expression when they want to praise something. They call it “top riffle.” That’s also where the most and the biggest gold particles end up.
The details of the no-sluice, non-suction-dredge device are outlined in the New 49ers website at http://www.goldgold.com/. In essence, it recommends suctioning the richest gold bearing materials into a not-too-large tank located close to the river bank. Then the miner can recover the gold there using a gold pan.
Part of the appeal of suction dredges is that they can move large amounts of material quickly, but large amounts of material would quickly overwhelm the not-too-large tank. (Agencies and tribes have opposed dredging because it creates holes and gravel piles in the channels that free sediments and trapped mercury and that complicate fish spawning grounds.)
The website suggests discarding the overburden, which rarely carries gold, and only pumping the more concentrated “paydirt” found along bedrock or in crevices into the tank. It even cautions miners experimenting with the proposed system against making big excavations which “might provoke streambed alteration concerns.”
Dave McCracken, who founded the New 49ers in the early 1980s, mentions in the website that he is not an attorney but that the 49ers lawyer agrees with the explanation. He also quotes an email from Mark Stopher, a senior policy advisor with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Stopher is quoted saying, “If practiced as (McCracken) describes, this is not a violation of the moratorium and is not prohibited… It’s essentially a loophole in the existing law. ..My guess is that such a system will be less efficient, and less excavation will occur, than if you were using a suction dredge since there is no sluice box and miners will need to use some other system to sort through the material.”
In an interview with the Two Rivers Tribune, Stopher said the definition of a suction dredge with the three elements—pump, hose and sluice, originated in 1961 legislation and has been carried forward in all legislation since then. He said no one would have tried this before the moratorium and that he personally preferred his agencies dredging regulations and permit system which stated when, how and where dredging could be done.
One of the places where the new no-sluice mining may get trialed first would be a handful of Klamath River claims just downriver from the Independence Creek bridge, between Somes Bar and Happy Camp.
The area is attractive to miners for this use because there is much exposed bedrock, meaning less troublesome overburden. The area is also valued by groups working to rebuild fish populations because the channels where Independence Creek enters the Klamath are ideal refugia for juvenile fish, including Coho salmon.
He said the latest set of proposed regulations from his agency are the subject of six separate lawsuits. Several were from miners, who found them too restrictive, a “taking” of property, and outside the jurisdiction of a state agency. Another litigant was the Karuk Tribe, which said the regs did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.
The Karuk position in this case has been joined by 20 fishing and environmental groups.
All six of the suits have been handed to a judge in San Bernardino County. Stopher said, against this uncertain legal background, his agency was still required to file an update report with the legislature by April. His prediction for the future: “Nothing much will change for the next few months, but after that my crystal ball is foggy.”
In another round of river litigation, lawsuits from the Karuk Tribe and the environmental group Klamath Riverkeeper have been joined together by the federal court in Sacramento. Both suits were filed against the
Montague Irrigation District and charged that ranchers in the area were drawing so much water from the Shasta River at critical times that passage of spawning salmon was impossible, causing a crash in populations.
The judge in that case has ordered that all the parties engage in negotiations and a mediation to see if they can reach a settlement.
In still another water use case, the Farm Bureau brought a successful suit in a superior court in Yreka challenging the authority of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to require a streambed alteration permit from irrigators when they diverted surface water from a river or a creek.
The judge held that requiring the permit, called a 1602, was giving CDFW the authority to regulate a water right, a power held by the state’s Water Resources Control Board.
Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, and other river activists said the Tribe hoped that CDFW would appeal the case because its impact would be powerful, not just in Siskiyou County, but across the state.
Mark Stopher, from CDFW, said the Yreka ruling by judge Karen Dixon was “the subject of considerable internal discussion and the director will make the decision.”
A Hard Boiled Invention-Poached Radiator
The inventiveness of gold miners is a storied source of pride on Salmon River. The reputation was more for building and repairing equipment on the cheap than for devising a work-around on the state’s moratorium on suction dredging.
There were always stories about this or that miner who might construct a rock classifier out of scrap from a wrecked pickup, some rusty bed springs and three 55-gallon drums. There was no choice. Salmon River is remote and few miners made much money.
Years ago, decades ago, I was traveling up the North Fork Road with a miner named Tommy Soto, father of Toz Soto who now heads the Fisheries Department for the Karuk Tribe. It was a hot summer day and our old truck’s radiator had pinhole leaks. We’d refilled it twice at creek crossings already when we reached Sawyers Bar so Tommy stopped at the house of Sheldon Wilson.
Wilson was off logging so Soto slipped into his henhouse and came back with three fresh eggs. He broke these and dumped them into the radiator. “Whaddya doing,” I protested. “That’ll stop up everything.”
He ignored me and one by one, I watched the leaks seal themselves as the egg batter cooked and blocked the holes. We made it over the mountain.