Mining’s legacy

There’s poison in them thar streams!

The Gold Rush took place more than 150 years ago, but Californians are still dealing with its impacts today, as a new bill in the state Legislature indicates.

The bill, by Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Davis), is an attempt to solve the problem of mercury. It was widely used in gold mining, and today it remains in the beds of the streams and rivers, a poison that threatens the lives of humans as well as fish.

“Mercury in rivers is a very real and sometimes serious threat,” said Jim Alexander, an employee with Wayne Perry Inc., an environmental consulting firm out of Sacramento. “California is a state heavily populated with mercury contamination.”

Alexander says the abundance of mercury in California water systems stems from when miners would use mercury while sifting for gold. The quicksilver allowed the gold to sink and the sand and gravel to pass over the mercury.

“It was a common practice to use mercury. And now it’s a problem,” Alexander noted.

Indeed it is. At the bottom of the food chain, bacteria absorb the mercury, turning it into methylmercury. Small aquatic animals feed off the bacteria and then are eaten by fish. The mercury resides in these fish, making it possible for humans who consume them to be in danger.

While no cases of mercury poisoning have been reported from eating sport fish in California, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has issued a standing methylmercury advisement for many rivers and streams in California, including Black Butte Reservoir, west of Orland.

But the harmful effects of mining can’t be blamed on just the miners of the past. Mining is still going on, and modern methods can pose a threat to the environment, too, by stirring up silt and increasing stream turbidity.

Recognizing this, Wolk has introduced a bill seeking both to reduce mercury contamination and protect aquatic species from other mining impacts.

The legislation, AB 1032, would restrict suction dredging, a modern method of gold mining. Using power equipment and large hoses to vacumn stream floors, suction dredging is a common method used by gold miners to redeem gold that may lie on river bottoms. In the process, however, dredgers often also bring up the mercury that has settled there.

“Suction dredging stirs up mercury because most streams in Northern California are affected by historical mining operations. Suction dredging spreads the existing contamination,” said Wolk.

AB 1032 would require instream dredging operations to obtain a site-specific permit from the Department of Fish & Game in order to dredge. Currently, dredgers receive a permit that allows them to dredge anywhere, with no limitations on where they can or cannot dredge. Oversight by the department will provide more protections to streams and rivers that may be more vulnerable to dredging, said Wolk, allowing for the possible closure of some waters to dredging altogether.

Already passed in the Assembly and awaiting approval from the Senate, the bill is a “balanced” approach to the situation, said Wolk. It still allows recreational gold mining and panning, but limits its use in sensitive waters. These include rivers, streams and lakes already designated wild and heritage trout waters by the state—some 1,100 miles of waterways and 20 lakes.

Wolk said she has worked with a range of individuals and organizations on the bill. She’s conferred with experts from the public-health sector as well as from the science and environmental realms. Many of her allies have signed on because the bill offers protection to native stream wildlife, she said.

Caltrout, a membership group that advocates for protecting and restoring wild trout in California’s rivers and streams, is one of those organizations. Jeff Shellito, government affairs manager for the organziation, said AB 1032 would protect native trout and take the necessary steps to remedy a fragile situation.

In a support letter sent to the Senate Natural Resources & Water Committee, Shellito notes that the Karuk Tribe, native to the Klamath River region, sued the Department of Fish & Game two years ago over inadequate regulations of instream mining. The use of suction dredging caused damage to the habitats of salmon and steelhead, according to declarations filed in the lawsuit, and the tribe felt the department needed to monitor the actions of miners more carefully.

The department acknowledged fault and settled with the tribe, but because of budget constraints little has been done since to resolve the “flawed” regulations. Shellito said that this bill would provide protections where they’re needed without “undertaking a lengthy and costly rulemaking process.”

“The courts have already challenged the current regulations we have in place to protect our rivers and streams,” said Wolk. “This legislation is rising to that challenge and solving the problem ourselves.”