Dredge Mine Proposed for Bed of Salmon River
A Riggins-based miner has applied for a 5-year commercial riverbed lease in a popular section of the Salmon River. The mining operation could impact up to one mile of the riverbed in habitat designated for the protection of endangered species.
A Riggins-based miner has applied for a 5-year commercial riverbed lease in a popular section of the Salmon River near Time Zone Bridge just below Riggins. The mining operation could impact up to one mile of the riverbed in habitat designated for the protection of endangered species — including Chinook salmon, steelhead trout and bull trout.
In 2012, a similar mineral lease was withdrawn in response to a lawsuit filed by the Idaho Conservation League. This new proposal also follows a controversial protest held on the Salmon River upstream of Riggins, which attracted some 60 miners over the course of a week.
Regardless of whether the state issues a lease, the proposed mining operation would require a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately for the miner, the EPA has restricted dredge mining in the Salmon River and in other rivers and streams that have been designated as critical habitat for salmon, steelhead and trout. As a result, mining in this area could warrant penalties of up to $37,500 per day.
What Is Suction Dredge Mining?
Imagine a high-powered vacuum, floating on pontoons. The miner dives to the bottom of the stream and sucks up gravel and sediment with a large hose, excavating down to the bedrock. The dredged material (sediment, gravels, rock and water) is discharged through a sluice box on the back of the floating dredge, capturing the gold, and spewing the sediment and gravel back into the water.
The practice can wreak havoc on fish habitat and stream water quality:
- Sediment discharged by the dredges can smother fish eggs.
- Gravel deposited behind the dredges can create unstable spawning beds, which can be attractive to fish yet fail to provide the stable substrate the
eggs need to survive.
created by the dredging can persist, changing river hydrology, leading
to downstream erosion and creating dangerous wading conditions for
boaters and anglers.
- Mercury can be released into the water column, threatening public health, aquatic species and downstream users.
- Fisheries biologists, hydrologists and others agree that the impact from suction dredge mining is harmful to fish and threatens water quality. That's why restrictions, limitations or statewide bans have been put in place in Idaho, Oregon, California, and other western states.
- Dredges can harm stream banks and streamside vegetation as the equipment is hauled in and out of the water or used to dredge beneath streambanks.
So, What's the Deal with the EPA Permit?
Up until 2013, nearly 1,000 miners each year operated suction dredges in Idaho's rivers and streams with a $10 state permit. Similar to a fishing license, the $10 permit allowed dredgers to mine in waters designated by the Idaho Department of Water Resources as open to this activity. Based on concerns raised by Idahoans, the EPA recognized that Idaho's permitting system was not adequate to protect clean water.
In response, the EPA issued the new permitting system in 2013 and authorized suction dredge mining in Idaho in places where negative impacts could be avoided. Recognizing the effects of dredge mining on water quality and endangered species, the EPA prohibited suction dredge mining in Idaho rivers that were already impacted by sediment or that were designated critical habitat for fish. The free EPA permit represents the only way for Idaho miners to comply with the Clean Water Act and operate a suction dredge in Idaho. In 2013, 81 separate operations were approved under the new system.
In early July 2014, a protest was held on the Salmon River, an area closed to dredging. Approximately 60 miners showed up, with upwards of 10 dredges working the riverbed. Even so, the EPA elected not to enforce the Clean Water Act in the face of the violations. Other miners have similarly been openly violating the Clean Water Act, and it is unclear whether and when the EPA or other agencies might choose to hold them accountable.
What Happens Next?
The Idaho Conservation League will be monitoring the proposal closely and encouraging supporters to voice their concerns in comments to the Idaho Department of Lands (sign up for our email updates at the top of this page to be notified). A public hearing was held in McCall on Sept. 3. Finally, the Idaho Land Board (made up of the Governor, Secretary of State, Controller, Attorney General and Superintendent of Education) will consider the lease at their meeting on February 17 in Boise in Room 214 of the Borah Post Office Building, providing another opportunity to voice your concerns.
Clean water and a healthy Salmon River are priceless assets for Idahoans and those who live and play downstream. We all have the right to use the Salmon River, but no one has the right to abuse it.