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Dredge Mine Proposed for Bed of Salmon River

Posted by Jonathan Oppenheimer at Jul 22, 2014 01:10 PM |

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.

Dredge Mine Proposed for Bed of Salmon River

An untended suction dredge on the Salmon River. J. Oppenheimer photo.

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In 2012, a similar mineral lease was withdrawn in response to a lawsuit filed by the Idaho Conservation League.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?

Suction Dredge Mining
Dredge mining can have significant impacts on rivers and streams. Note the sediment deposited downstream of this dredge in the South Fork Payette River. Justin Hayes photo.

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.
  • Holes 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.

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 is also scheduled 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, likely in October, 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.


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impact to river

Posted by Dave Busselle at Jul 23, 2014 03:08 PM
The impact of suction dredging does not add anything to the river and if the dredging is done in the 'in water work period' as defined, does no harm to rhedds or fish population. Read the studies, you are incorrect in you assumption.

re: impact to river

Posted by Jonathan Oppenheimer at Jul 25, 2014 01:26 PM
Dave, thanks for your comment.
We recognize that some dredge miners dispute the notion that dredging in sensitive habitat for endangered fish and other aquatic species is harmful to those species. Professional fisheries biologists have confirmed the negative impacts associated with dredging. Their findings and conclusions are detailed in a Biological Assessment associated with the EPA's issuance of general permit for dredging in Idaho's rivers and streams. http://www.idahoconservatio[…]redge-biological-assessment
Erosion and turbidity associated with rocks, sand and sediment is in fact a major issue in terms of salmon, Steelhead, lamprey and trout habitat. They require spaces in between the cobbles and gravels for spawning and when fine sediment and silt fill in those spaces, it smothers the fish eggs.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has similarly raised concern with the proposed mining lease in the Salmon River because of impacts to salmon, steelhead, lamprey and trout.

re: impact to river

Posted by Claudia Wise at Aug 05, 2014 01:16 PM
Jonathan, Your statement "Professional fisheries biologists have confirmed the negative impacts associated with dredging" is not true. Biologists have found only insignificant effects if any and resort to saying impacts may occur. That is after many studies have been done and even in Harvey's 1999 paper which seems to be popular to use in this case, he states he has not found any measureable effects yet instead of reporting only his findings as a scientist should he decides to take the role of a resource manager and suggests to manage the resources AS IF there were harm when none was found.
Your comment "fine sediment and silt fill in those spaces, it smothers the fish eggs" lacks your ability to understand that miners are not working in the water when eggs are present. Not only that but the fact is the insignificant amount of sediment released during dredging is just that insignificant and will not smother eggs even if they were present which they are not.



impact to river

Posted by Martin at Aug 06, 2014 11:49 AM
Dredging does not take place when fish are spawning, it also makes great habitat for the fish fry. When you hand stack rocks you leave void which they love for protection.

Mining

Posted by Ron at Jul 23, 2014 03:17 PM
Conservationist are all drinking the same cool-aid from the same pitcher of stupidity. Has they ever seen a river or stream during a good rain? I don't think they have or they wouldn't even believe what is being said here. Between EPA (Environmental Propaganda Agency) and all the other Eco-Terrorist groups, there might be 1/1000 of common sense. They have been brainwashed into thinking they are free thinkers as long as they think like the stupid so called scientists that spew this crap. Wake up people. I bet they would believe anything they are told as long as it benefits their cause. What ever the Cause of the Day is.

Dredging

Posted by Scott at Jul 24, 2014 08:47 AM
I am for the epa cleaning up industrial waste, however even though they have repeatedly reported small scale dredging has no SIGNIFICANT impact they have been bullied by lawsuits to attack it anyway. Common sense would tell you that a million dredgers can't do what one big storm can disturb....and fish still thrive. Fishing and dams have a greater impact on river health. Moving rocks and sand can't hurt anything. These are not the huge bucket line dredges of a hundred years ago...these are small vacuums that remove heavy metals in precise locations a few yards at a time. It is illogical why environmentalists and dredgers are not friends. We clean up the rivers of lead fishing weights, bullets, fish hooks, mercury and decaying uranium that improves water conditions....I just don't get the attack. Maybe it is just confusion about lumping all mining together as bad. You want better ecology remove the dams and stop picking on a small group of people who arguably help the system. I say lets put an end to this and set aside ten rivers open to dredging and ten closed to it, measure the health of them and again in five or ten years. I think you will find what the epa has been saying all these years.

re: Dredging

Posted by Jonathan Oppenheimer at Jul 25, 2014 01:27 PM
Scott-
Thanks for your comment. We agree that the scale of impact from a suction dredge pale in comparison to the bucket line dredges of 100 years ago. And that sediment naturally occurs in streams. The cumulative impacts of roads, mining (historic and current), dams, along with other habitat modifications have resulted in fish populations far below what was historic. So, are fish "thriving"?
Professional fisheries biologists have confirmed the negative impacts associated with dredging. Their findings and conclusions are detailed in a Biological Assessment associated with the EPA's issuance of general permit for dredging in Idaho's rivers and streams. See: http://www.idahoconservatio[…]redge-biological-assessment
We do recognize that there is a difference between an open-pit mine that turns a mountain inside out, and a single suction dredger. Both have to comply with the laws of the land, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
We also agree that an active monitoring and enforcement program is needed to better evaluate the impacts of dredging.
Finally, it's important to note that the EPA General Permit, for the first time, provided a legal mechanism to dredge in Idaho waters were existing pollution and endangered species are not an issue. This includes places like Grimes and Mores Creek, near Idaho City. We agree with EPA and others that there are places where dredging can avoid, or at least minimize, negative impacts. And we appreciate the refuse that dredgers remove from the stream. Still, we have concerns, and just like outfitters, boaters, anglers and hunters have to abide by the laws of the land, so too must dredgers. Just because dredgers don't like the rules, doesn't mean they can break them.

Suction Dredge

Posted by Frank Matyus at Jul 24, 2014 08:48 AM
if the suction dredge is so harmful, why is the sierra fund seeking 9 million of tax payer monies to fund a project on the Combie Resivoir to rent a cutter head suction dredge which has a loss much greater then what the miners use in the rivers,
next, since the Methylmercury is the concern and accures only in still waters, why is the Sierra Fund collecting only Elemental Mercury in the Combie Resivior,
Elemental Mercury is removed by the miners using a suction dredge and collects 98% ( California State Water resoource Control board )
Sirra Fund may collect 70% to 80% of elemental mercury.
not one case has been ducumented where a fish was harmed using a suction dredge
Elemental Mercury could be removed again if we brought back the milk runs (EPA ) miners with their suction dredges would remove 98% of the elemental mercury, preventing 98% Methylmercury

re: Suction Dredge

Posted by Jonathan Oppenheimer at Jul 25, 2014 01:27 PM
Frank-
I'm not familiar with the Sierra Fund or the Combie Reservoir, however dredging to remove sediment or to restore naturally-functioning waterways can be appropriate on a site-specific basis. Our concern is with dredging that occurs in habitat for sensitive species and in important waters like the Salmon River. Fish biologists have concurred that suction dredge mining results in negative impacts to salmon, steelhead, lamprey and other species.
The rules protecting the Salmon River and other Idaho streams and rivers are there for a reason. As long as those rules are there, it's our responsibility as citizens to abide by them. After all the Salmon River is something that belongs to all of us.

Dredge mining

Posted by Mike Rogers at Jul 24, 2014 10:49 AM
So we're supposed to let OUR rivers be polluted by a few people for personal gain? All this talk of EPA overreach is missing the point. These waters are for the benefit of us all, not the few. Your right to make a living off of natural resources ends at my right to clean water and sustainable fisheries.

Dredge Mining

Posted by Barb at Jul 24, 2014 06:41 PM
Well said Mike ! And if they CLAIM they are doing this to make a living, which is BS by the way, (it's recreational) then let's see them pony up their TAXES for income !!

Dredge Mining

Posted by Roy Heberger at Jul 24, 2014 03:18 PM
I think that “recreational” dredge mining or dredge mining of any magnitude should be off limits in any waters containing species of anadromous fishes.

Okay, that’s just an opinion. Now, let me try to support it.

First, Snake River basin anadromous salmon and steelhead are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. The ESA is in part a habitat-based Act of federal law. Recovery is a complex problem, one that requires us to look closely at all facets of the life requirements of listed salmon and steelhead.

Second, recovery of those species will depend on habitat, all the required kinds of habitat – spawning, incubation, rearing, holding, and migration. Recovery requires that rearing habitat be productive of the food organisms required by rearing juvenile fishes. River and stream bottoms are important habitat elements of salmon and steelhead and of the food organisms they require as is the quality of water that flows over those stream and river bottoms. Recovery requires that spawning habitat be clean and well aerated gravels. That means that the stream and river bottoms are not embedded by fine sediments that damage eggs and larvae, reduce inter-gravel stream flows, lower dissolved oxygen, and retard removal of metabolic waste products and carbon dioxide.

Dredge mining is not a self-mitigating activity that “improves” habitat. It is a claim I have read to often by proponents of the activity. It is a habitat-altering activity that involves the removal and redeposit of fines. One may argue if it should be covered under sections 402 or 404 of the Clean Water Act, and I have my opinion on that. I see it as a matter to be addressed under section 402 – deposition of waste material and a fill, but not a fill for purpose. It is a release and deposit of a solid waste from a point source. To mitigate or at best compensate for the impacts of the dredging activity I would and do suggest that deposits be outside of the river bed and of the riparian zone of the mined water body. Impractical as that may sound – that’s the reality of dredge mining and fish habitat.

Let's at least be accurate

Posted by Scott at Aug 05, 2014 01:38 PM
I'm all for protecting the environment, but let's at least be accurate. Here are the corrections:
• Sediment discharged by the dredges can smother fish eggs, which is not a problem in this case because it's not a spawning area.
• 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; however, this is not a spawning area.
• Holes created by the dredging can persist, changing river hydrology, leading to downstream erosion and creating dangerous wading conditions for boaters and anglers. However, dredging holes can provide a benefit to fish that need a cooler place to rest while on their way to the spawning grounds and can provide good swimming and fishing locations.
• Mercury can be released into the water column, threatening public health, aquatic species and downstream users. However, this mercury will be dislodged and moved downstream during flood waters, so at least the dredgers are capturing and removing as much as 98% of the mercury in the riffles of their equipment.
• Fisheries biologists, hydrologists and others agree that the impact from suction dredge mining is harmful to fish and threatens water quality, though some professionals disagree and many are just worried their grant money will dry up if they don't play along.
• 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. However, rafters, kayakers and fishermen do the same. If a dredger is dredging into a streambank he should be cited. We all expect reckless drivers to be cited when necessary, but we don't outlaw all vehicles on our roads because a few drivers are careless!

dredging

Posted by Martin at Aug 06, 2014 11:49 AM
If dredging is so harmful lets see the science that proves this, they never show the actual science the only use a hypotheses and most that guess don't have any idea what fish thrive on.

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