Suction dredging ban a drag for miners

Environmental groups fight mining technique
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Dennis Robnett estimates a statewide moratorium on suction dredge mining for gold has cut business at Pioneer Mining by 60 percent. The Auburn business is one of many in the motherlode taking a hit in revenue as a result of the 2009 ban, according to Robnett, who is the manager. Some environmental groups and Indian tribes say the court-ordered moratorium is necessary to protect wildlife species and waterways from dredging equipment, which uses a suction device to excavate sediment from underwater. Local prospectors say the moratorium is unfair and costing them potentially thousands of dollars. Although the ban was supposed to be lifted this year, provided the Department of Fish and Game released new regulations on suction dredging, budget constraints have kept them from spending the money to do so. Now, two trailer bills attached to the state budget may prolong those cuts. “Places like Downieville are down 80 percent,” Robnett said. “They are barely getting by. It affects all of our businesses up in the motherlode.” Roger Bendix of Fair Oaks buys and sells dredging equipment, in addition to mining for gold himself. He hasn’t been able to use his claims on the South Fork of the Yuba River. While for Bendix, who is a painting contractor, suction dredging is a hobby, he plans on using the gold he has accumulated as part of his retirement. “I have kept all my gold from day one. I want to turn them into earrings and pendants one day to sell,” Bendix said. “It’s probably costing me $15,000-$20,000. That’s the shame of it. There are guys, their unemployment has run out and this is the only way they could support their family. Gold is at an all time high. It’s a nice little retirement account.” Bendix said he has sent letters to the California Department of Fish and Game, who is responsible for regulating suction dredging in California, and attended local hearings to voice his opinion on the issue. He said dredging is beneficial to the environment in local waterways, despite contrary views of some environmental groups and the findings of an Environmental Impact Report conducted by the Department of Fish and Game. Steve Evans, Wild Rivers Project Director for the Friends of the River, said the harmful effects on the environment means section dredging should be strictly regulated or banned. Evans said dredges don’t just pick up globules of mercury, but break them into smaller particles that flow more freely into drinking water sources. The economic benefits to the state are not worth the risk to people and the environment, according to Evans. “By and large it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the state’s economy when we are talking about impacting water or fish hatcheries for millions of Californians,” Evans said. John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said his organization is also opposed to suction dredging. According to Beuttler, dredging lowers the fish population by smothering their eggs with rocks and gravel. “We have been opposed to suction dredging for the last 20 to 30 years,” Beuttler said. “Not only does it destroy the habitat fish need to be sustainable, it also has some significant impacts on the fishing industry and the public resource.” State Sen. Ted Gaines(R-Roseville) and Congressman Tom McClintock(R-Roseville) have sided with the suction dredging community, and are working to reinstate it. “Legislative tricks are putting an entire industry at risk,” Gaines said in a press release. “This is unfair to the thousands of miners, their families and the businesses that depend on suction dredge mining for their livelihoods.” Earlier this year, Gaines introduced Senate Bill 657 to reinstate suction dredging. It was defeated in the Senate Natural Resources Committee 5-2. Robnett said he has sat down to voice his concerns to Gaines, but still isn’t sure he will be prospecting with his suction dredger anytime soon. “He’s put his best foot forward for us,” Robnett said. “I just think that the environmentalists at the present time have the attention of the government. With their money they can outgun what we are doing.” Reach Sara Seyydin at