Dredging moratorium stirring up conflict | TheUnion.com

Dredging moratorium stirring up conflict

Aaron Webb of Rapids, Wis., left, and Matt Lauer of Portage, Wis., team up to hunt for gold with a suction dredge on the Klamath River near Happy Camp, Calif.
The Associated Press | AP

The ongoing moratorium on suction dredge mining on California rivers has caused a rift between environmentalists and miners.

Craig Lindsay, executive director of the Western Mining Alliance, recently accused Izzy Martin, executive director of The Sierra Fund, of perpetuating myths regarding mercury contamination of fish in order to fatten her organization’s bank account.

Martin rebutted the accusation, reaffirming the existence of mercury-contaminated fish that compromises human health and safety and saying the mining alliance consistently misleads the public about the issue to further a destructive hobby.

The sharp tenor of the debate stems from The Sierra Fund’s attempt to demonstrate a relationship between suction dredge mining and an increase in methylmercury.

As part of its work, The Sierra Fund has asserted in numerous studies that mercury used in gold mining operations in the latter half of the 19th century has found its way into the watershed.

By a process of methylation, the mercury enters the food chain. Certain types of fish accumulate unsafe amounts of the element that can present detrimental impacts to humans, particularly children and pregnant women.

“In truth, 26 million pounds of mercury were brought to this region during the Gold Rush, at least 10 million pounds of which was left behind in the environment, a legacy that still affects our environment today,” Martin wrote in a recent article that appeared in El Dorado County. “People are exposed to that mercury when eating certain species of locally caught fish.”

Martin’s article was a response to the mining alliance, which issued a news release touting the results of a recent study conducted by the California Water Board that concluded “California sport fish … are safe to eat throughout the Sierra.”

Specifically, California’s trout are some of the safest for consumption in the country, the Western Mining Alliance stated in the release. Measured amounts of toxins, including mercury, show levels well below established health advisories, the release said.

“Despite the rhetoric of environmental groups claiming a toxic legacy from mining, there is no argument about the science,” Lindsay said.

“The data clearly shows mercury is not an issue in gold country, the fish all measure well below advisory criteria, and mercury levels have been consistently dropping over the past 20 years.”

Kerry Morse, spokeswoman for The Sierra Fund, dismissed the mining alliance statement as spin.

The Sierra Fund pointed to a recent release by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment that stated wild-caught rainbow trout and smaller brown trout are indeed safe for moderate consumption but cautioned against large brown trout caught in lakes and reservoirs, carp and particularly bass.

The statement seemed to put two state agencies at odds, but Sam Delson, spokesman for OEHHA, said the California Water Board provides good baseline data that provides a foundation for further study of more species and their relationships to mercury.

“Many fish are safe to eat,” Delson said. “But mercury contamination is an issue, especially in some species such as bass. Some of it comes from old mining operations, and some of it comes from atmospheric deposition.”

Eric Maksymyk, a board member of the Western Mining Alliance, contends suction dredge mining could be employed to remove mercury from river bottoms.

“Studies have shown that suction dredge equipment is 98 percent efficient at picking up mercury from river bottoms,” he said.

Instead of redepositing the mercury back in the environment, it is collected, and if officials and environmentalists were more willing to work with miners, a program could be installed where the collected mercury could be safely disposed of, Maksymyk said.

Izzy Martin is not buying that argument.

She said the disturbances of the river bottom caused by dredging accelerates the methylation process of mercury, abetting the toxin’s rapid entry into the food chain.

Lindsay countered with allegations of hypocrisy, noting The Sierra Fund has collaborated with the Nevada Irrigation District to conduct a mercury extraction project at Combie Reservoir, which he said was tantamount to a suction dredging operation.

Carrie Monohan, a science director for The Sierra Fund who also works for NID, said the mercury machine has a more sophisticated nozzle that prevents a large dredging plume.

Suction dredge mining also presents hazards to certain species of fish, but the Western Mining Alliance advocates time and seasonal restrictions.

“You would think there would be an opportunity to collaborate, but there is no middle ground with environmental groups,” Lindsay said.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or 530-477-4239.

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