Sucking up gold

 

Gold has hit $1500 an ounce -- and that's got would-be miners casting a covetous eye at Western streams and rivers. The Gold Rush may have ended more than a century ago, but there's still gold to be gleaned, if you've got a pickup, a wetsuit or waders, and a suction dredge  (see our 2006 story on hobby gold mining).

suction dredge

Suction dredge equipment in a stream.

Now California is trying to come up with rules to protect aquatic life while still allowing hobby miners to pan for gold. The Golden State has banned that activity since 2009, after the Karuk Tribe filed a lawsuit claiming that suction mining was harming coho salmon and other species. The Sacramento Bee reports:

Dredge mining, as a rule, includes a floating mechanism with an attached tube that functions something like a vacuum cleaner.

A miner, often in a wetsuit underwater, feeds the tube with stream-bottom gravels, which are sucked up and run through a sluice that separates out heavier material – gold, if the miner is fortunate.  ...

Environmentalists and fishing groups are concerned about what disturbing streambeds does to fish – especially in sensitive spawning seasons or in prime spawning areas.

Mining advocates are skeptical."Who kills fish? Fishermen," said Ray Nutting, a fisherman himself and supervisor in El Dorado County, one of the most popular counties for California dredge miners.

Suction dredging also can dislodge heavy metals, such as mercury, from streambeds. Hobby miners claim they're doing rivers a service by processing gravel and removing mercury particles;  the U.S. Geological Survey says the disturbance actually stirs up fine particles of mercury which then get converted into highly toxic methylmercury and enter the food chain.

In August, Oregon toughened its permitting for hobby miners, but the state still basically relies on self-enforcement. Suction dredging has been a particular problem on the Chetco River -- Congress is now considering a bill that would designate more of the river as better protect parts of the river designated as Wild and Scenic, prevent new suction-dredge mining claims and increase scrutiny of existing claims. California's final dredging rules are expected this fall.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.