Gold miners help clean up rivers

Joseph C. Greene, a former research biologist for the US Environmental Protection Agency, in his plea from February 2010 for Governor Schwarzenegger to veto the anti-suction dredge gold mining legislation, made a number of key points that seem to have been ignored by the California legislature. Mr. Greene’s entire letter can be found at He first sets forth the facts: “Looking for gold in California streams and rivers is a recreational activity for thousands of state residents, and a part-time or full-time job for hundreds more. As these miners remove sediments, sands, and gravel from streams and former mine sites to separate out the gold, they are also removing mercury.” In other words miners in the course of their daily activities are cleaning California’s streams. So why are they now banned from that activity and the state seemingly set to pay someone else millions of dollars to do the same job?

Yuba River near Bridgeport

Greene adds, “Taking mercury out of streams benefits the environment. Efforts to collect mercury from recreational gold miners in the past, however, have been stymied due to perceived regulatory barriers.” And this is certainly the case in California, the state with perhaps the worst record in America for putting regulatory barriers in the way of business. But Greene goes on to present a simple solution that is currently working in other places. “In Washington State, over the past four years, the Resources Coalition and other small-scale miners associations have turned in 127 pounds of mercury and eight pounds of lead for safe disposal. This year, Ecology staff attended miners’ rallies in Oroville and Monroe, explaining the state’s program for proper disposal of lead and mercury.” Instead, in California, an arrogant, insensitive legislature callously waves aside the legal right of miners to the gold in the rivers along their mining claims and does so in a last minute rider to a bill due to be passed today that allows little discussion, protest or consideration of alternatives.

The California legislature paints the gold miners as a major part of the problem. Greene, however, is quite clear. “On balance, suction dredges provide a net environmental benefit by removing nearly all of any mercury they encounter.” But in spite of the proven benefits of continued mining activity coupled with education and assistance in mercury removal, California has chosen to force miners from a major part of their livelihood. “Inasmuch as public authorities have no better method to remove the mercury than suction dredges, this seems pointless.” Greene concludes. But it is not only pointless, it appears illegal, not to mention downright sneaky. Just like gold miners with a suction dredge will recover mercury, an environmentalist with the same suction dredge will recover gold. Does California have a plan for the gold they will recover in mercury cleanup efforts? Has the state of California made that plan public? Will they compensate claim holders and property owners for the loss of legitimate mineral rights? Or is California’s gold destined for some other place, that the powers that be would prefer remain unmentioned?


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