We’ve reported in the past about a Riggins-based miner who received approval from the state of Idaho for a commercial riverbed lease in a popular section of the Salmon River, just downstream of Riggins. The gold mining operation could affect up to one mile of the riverbed in habitat designated for salmon and steelhead and in a stretch of river important to the local recreation economy.
Despite 2017 approval from the Idaho Land Board (made up of the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, schools superintendent, and controller), the miner has not received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Army Corps of Engineers. Such approval is necessary because the EPA has restricted dredge mining in the Salmon River and other rivers and streams that provide critical habitat for salmon, steelhead and trout.
In response to the miner’s application, the Army Corps of Engineers is considering impacts of this proposal and will work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to consider measures that would protect endangered species. Because the Salmon River is considered a “navigable stream” by the government, the Army Corps must determine whether a project is in the public interest before any permit can be authorized. We don’t believe that this project is in the public interest, and hope you agree. The Army Corps also wants to hear from you!
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 sediment and gravel back into the water.
The practice can wreak havoc on fish habitat and 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 that 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 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 streambanks and streamside vegetation as the equipment is hauled in and out of the water or used to dredge beneath streambanks.
What’s the Deal with the Army Corps and EPA Permits?
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 inadequate to protect clean water.
In response, the EPA issued a new permitting system in 2013 (updated in 2018). Dredge miners had to apply for a permit, and the agency could authorize applications to suction dredge in places where harm to salmon and steelhead could be avoided. Recognizing the harmful effects of dredge mining on water quality and endangered species, the EPA prohibited suction dredge mining in Idaho rivers that were already affected by sediment or designated as 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 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers redesignated the Salmon River as a navigable stream. As a result, permits are required for anything under, over or in the river, including suction dredges.The permit, pursuant to section 10 of the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, requires a review to ensure that the project is “in the public interest.” If approved, this would be the first suction dredge mining operation authorized in Idaho’s iconic Salmon River.
What Happens Next?
ICL is monitoring the proposal closely. And we encourage you to voice your concerns to the Army Corps of Engineers. Use our form to take action for keeping the Salmon River safe for endangered salmon and steelhead! Speak up now – the deadline is Aug. 14. [This comment period is no longer open.]
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 – no one has the right to abuse it.