For Immediate Release: Monday, November 20, 2023
Jonathan Oppenheimer, ICL Government Relations Director, (208) 208-345-6933 x 226
Bryan Hurlbutt, Staff Attorney, Advocates for the West, (208) 342-7024 x 206
Abby Urbanek, ICL Communications & Marketing Manager, (208) 345-6933 x 214
9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirms ruling, suction dredge miner unlawfully polluted Idaho river
BOISE, ID — On November 20, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that professional gold miner Shannon Poe violated the federal Clean Water Act when he dumped suction dredge mining waste into the South Fork of the Clearwater River without a required pollution permit.
“Based in part on Poe’s own admissions that he dredged without proper approval, the appeals court sent a strong message that scofflaw miners will be held to account. This case should set a precedent for much of the western United States and Alaska, ensuring that dredge miners and other polluters cannot flout the law,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director with the Idaho Conservation League (ICL).
Suction dredge mining is a method of mining gold from riverbeds. Using an underwater hose, suction dredge miners suck up riverbed materials and then sort them for gold on a floating dredge. After sorting, most riverbed materials are discarded into the river, creating a plume of muddy water and other pollutants. Suction dredge mining also leaves behind dredge holes and waste rock piles in the riverbed.
For years, Poe and his organization, the American Mining Rights Association, have encouraged miners to ignore federal rules on the South Fork of the Clearwater River and across Idaho.
ICL filed this lawsuit against Poe, of California, in August 2018 for illegal suction dredge mining on the South Fork of the Clearwater River, which provides critical habitat for salmon, steelhead, bull trout and other sensitive species. ICL is represented by Advocates for the West.
Today’s Ninth Circuit ruling upholds a series of earlier district court rulings in the case. In June 2021, the district court held that Poe violated the Clean Water Act when he engaged in unpermitted suction dredge mining on 42 separate days. In September 2022, the district court levied a $150,000 fine against Poe due to Poe’s repeated violations, disregard for warnings, and encouragement to others to violate the law. The 2022 ruling also prohibits Poe from mining on the South Fork Clearwater River in the future unless he secures and complies with a Clean Water Act permit.
In the ruling, the Ninth Circuit rejected Poe’s argument that he never added any pollutants to the river, finding: “Poe excavated rocks, gravel, sand, sediment, and silt from the riverbed. Poe punched holes in the riverbed by excavating through layers of riverbed down to the bedrock. Poe then processed the materials by running them through the sluice on his dredge, and then discarded the waste material into the water. This added a plume of turbid wastewater to the South Fork.”
“The 9th circuit’s affirmation of the decision should serve as a warning to anyone who flouts rules that protect clean water,” continued Oppenheimer. “Whether you’re a logger, angler, boater or a miner, we all have to follow the rules; it’s our responsibility as citizens. The largest Clean Water Act fine ever levied against an individual in Idaho should send a clear message to miners, or anyone, who refuses to follow the rules.”
“Unpermitted suction dredge mining is polluting the Salmon, Payette, and Boise rivers, not just the Clearwater river,” added Bryan Hurlbutt, staff attorney at Advocates for the West. “Any mining in Idaho’s rivers must be held to the highest standards.”
ICL monitors suction dredge mining across the state, and has placed several miners on legal notice to encourage Clean Water Act compliance and to protect Idaho’s rivers and streams from pollution. Dredge miners in Idaho must obtain an Idaho Pollution Discharge Elimination System (IPDES) Permit from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to comply with the Clean Water Act, and must obtain other permits to comply with state and federal rules designed to protect sensitive species, water quality, and other public resources.
Dredge mining can wreak havoc on fish, wildlife habitat, riverbanks, waterways and riverbeds. A high-powered vacuum sucks up gravel and sediment at the bottom of a stream, dumps the material into a sluice box to capture gold, if any, and then spews the gravel and sediment back into the water. Video/B-roll footage available from ”Dirty Gold,” presented by Friends of the Clearwater.
ICL’s mission is to create a conservation community and pragmatic, enduring solutions that protect and restore the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the land and wildlife you love. www.idahoconservation.org
Advocates for the West is a non-profit, public interest environmental law firm headquartered in Boise, Idaho, that works to defend public lands, water, fish and wildlife throughout the American West. Visit Advocates for the West online at https://advocateswest.org/.