Landmark River Protection Legislation Becomes Law

Controversial Mining Technique Must Comply with Water Quality Standards for the 1st Time

Friday, October 9, 2015

Sacramento, CA – Today Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation authored by Senator Ben Allen (D – Santa Monica) that will protect California rivers and streams from environmentally hazardous suction dredge mining.  This legislation, Senate Bill (SB) 637, requires suction dredge mining to be regulated by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), which is responsible for ensuring that water quality standards are met in the course of any activities affecting state waterways.

“I am so pleased that finally water quality and impacts on human health will be evaluated before suction dredge mining is allowed to take place,” Senator Allen said.

The law is the culmination of a decades-long legislative and legal battle surrounding the controversial mining technique used predominantly in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in which sediment is vacuumed up from streambeds in the search for gold.  Studies have found that suction dredge mining can exacerbate contamination by mercury and other toxic pollutants in rivers and streams.  It disturbs fish habitat, and can harm endangered fish species. The mercury levels in fish taken from streams and rivers where gold mining has occurred are generally above the critical toxicity threshold levels, and indeed, are so high that they pose human health risks.

By empowering the SWRCB to regulate the activity, SB 637 seeks to ensure that suction dredge mining does not adversely affect water quality.  It also prohibits the Department of Fish and Wildlife from issuing a suction dredge mining permit until the SWRCB has determined it can be done without adverse impacts on water quality and fish.

SB 637 was the subject of extensive review by the legislature, with more than six hours of hearings in which hundreds of supporters and opponents came to testify.

“In the end, the science was clear that suction dredge mining can exacerbate toxicity levels in rivers and streams, and poison fish and wildlife,” Allen said.  “I am grateful Governor Jerry Brown took the final step to ensure that this destructive practice will take place only where it cannot degrade the environment.”

"Senator Allen worked hard to find a way to implement the legislative directive from 2009 to create a suction dredge regulatory structure that protects water quality," said Elizabeth "Izzy" Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund.

"This new law makes sure California's water quality and stream habitat aren't further degraded by an outdated and environmentally hazardous mining practice. The miners who use suction dredging are a vocal and organized band. It really required a senator who was willing to fight tirelessly for water quality and the public interest to successfully carry and pass this bill,” said Kathryn Phillips, Executive Director of the Sierra Club.

The new law will take effect on January 1, 2016.


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