Jardine: Salmon bill thwarts gold miners

August 11, 2009 

Dan Repke of Hickman is one frustrated gold seeker.

He's been mining since 1970, sometimes with a pan and sluice box, and at other times with a suction dredge. From November to June in good rain years, he and friend Chuck Pharis of Southern California work a creek that runs through private property in Mariposa County.

They each find about an ounce of gold per year, and sell it to tourist panning outfits in places such as Columbia State Historic Park.

Repke, 61, believes his type of mining is good for the environment — or at least doesn't hurt it — because dredging leaves pits in the streambed. Those pits, he said, hold water long after a seasonal stream normally goes dry and provide extended habitat to tadpoles and other aquatic life.

And he's extracted gold nuggets contaminated with mercury — a remnant from the less restrictive mining days of the 1800s — and lead shotgun pellets out of the creek beds with his vacuum dredge.

But a judge in Alameda County last month issued an injunction prohibiting the Department of Fish & Game from issuing any more suction dredging permits at $47 apiece until the DFG completes a new environmental impact report that encompasses the state's lakes, streams and rivers.

The injunction applies only to suction dredging, and does not restrict gold panning or sluicing.

And SB 670, written by Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, would prevent the DFG from resuming the issuance of permits until new rules stemming from the completion of the EIR are in place. That could take years, miners fear. It passed both in the Assembly and Senate last month and is headed for Gov. Schwarzenegger's desk. He vetoed a similar bill last year, but aide Lisa Page said he has not taken a position on SB 670.

The bill, proponents say, will protect fish populations, particularly the salmon runs on the Klamath River.

Dredging already is banned in the Tuolumne River because of its wild river designation. But the bill would impose rules statewide even though seasonal creeks don't offer fish habitat.

"What's Maxwell Creek got to do with salmon?" Repke asks.

A retired scientist who worked 32 years for the federal Environmental Protection Agency wrote to Schwarzenegger in support of the miners, telling him, "Suction dredge mining has little impact on the areas," and pointed out that the DFG already bans mining during the salmon runs and spawning season.

Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, a member of the Assembly's Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said he voted for the bill in committee because so much of the discussion involved the Klamath River.

"I thought it was a district bill, that it was a Klamath bill," he said. "If locals want it, that's one thing. But it was the whole flipping state."

So he opposed it during the July 9 floor vote, when it passed 63-11. Among the ayes: Berryhill's brother, Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, and Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston.

It passed 31-8 in the Senate, with Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, voting against it.

Repke and other miners hope Schwarzenegger will veto the bill, one they say will crimp the cash boxes in the communities where the gold hunters go.

"They stay in hotels, they eat in the restaurants," he said. "Lots of Gold Rush-era towns, all they have is tourism."

Miners often work the Merced River at Bagby, and while they enjoy it, Repke said, he doesn't know many who have gotten rich. But with gold valued at $954 an ounce, the chances of what he calls "just a hobby" paying for itself would be better — if they could only mine.

And unless the governor vetoes SB 670 — and the court lifts its injunction — the future suction dredge mining won't lie in the value of gold itself.

It will be at the mercy of an EIR.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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