Dredge miners who choose to mine in Idaho without proper permits face increasing monetary penalties for flouting regulations. Recently, a Washington dredge miner paid a record-setting $24,000 fine for nine days of dredging in the South Fork Clearwater River, which occurred during the summer of 2018.

The South Fork Clearwater River, near Elk City, is located in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests and has long been an important spawning stream for salmon, steelhead, several species of native trout, along with other aquatic species.

The case against Carl Grissom of Richland, Washington, was based on evidence collected by ICL during the summer of 2018, which EPA used to prosecute Mr. Grissom. While Grissom initially attempted to dispute the charges, claiming that suction dredge mining does not discharge pollutants, the Administrative Law Judge found otherwise. In his ruling, they determined that Grissom’s arguments were without merit.

Mr. Grissom is the fourth individual who has been cited under the Clean Water Act for failing to adhere to the rules and obtain an Idaho dredge mining permit. Previously, Robert Rice of Idaho Falls was fined $3,600, and David Erlanson of Swan Valley, Idaho was fined $6,600 for one day of dredging in the South Fork Clearwater River. An Administrative Law Judges considered each of these cases.

ICL brought suit against California-based dredge mining advocate Shannon Poe in another ongoing case. Using the citizen enforcement provisions of the Clean Water Act, ICL filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for Idaho in 2018. In June 2021, former Magistrate Judge Ron Bush found in ICL’s favor, determining that Poe had violated the Clean Water Act and dismissing many of the same arguments that Grissom posed in his defense. Following the ruling the Poe trial, entered the “penalty phase” where the court will determine the appropriate penalty for 42 days of dredging that spanned 2014-2018. ICL expects a hearing, further briefing, and a ruling in 2022.

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.

Experts have found dredging 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 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 conditions for boaters, anglers, and other river users.
  • Mercury can release into the water column, threatening public health, aquatic species, and downstream users.
  • Fisheries biologists, hydrologists, and public land managers agree that suction dredge mining harms fish and threatens water quality. That’s why restrictions, limitations, or statewide bans exist throughout Idaho, Oregon, California, and other western states.
  • Dredges can damage streambanks and streamside vegetation as the equipment moves in and out of the water or dredges beneath streambanks.

In 2013, the EPA implemented new rules for dredge mining in Idaho to protect our rivers and streams. Unless specific protections are implemented, the rules prohibited dredge mining in sensitive rivers and streams, including those that harbor endangered salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and other aquatic species. The authority for the permit has since transferred to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which will be responsible for developing a revised permit by 2023. It is important that these and other protections remain in place, especially with Idaho’s declining salmon and steelhead populations.

South Fork Clearwater is a special place.

The South Fork Clearwater River, near Elk City, has been designated as a “critical habitat” for steelhead and bull trout. Historic mining in headwater streams, including Crooked River, Red River, and the American River, have been the target of significant restoration efforts. Under special rules developed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, a small number of dredges are allowed to operate. Still, the dredge sites must be preapproved by fisheries biologists and land managers and are limited to a one-month season.

Unfortunately, many miners have refused to follow the regulations, secure the necessary permits, and instead are flouting the rules. The good news is they are being held accountable under the terms of the Clean Water Act.

As ICL has said before, whether you’re a boater, an angler, a logger, or a miner, we all have a right to use our public lands and waters, but we also have a responsibility to follow the rules, and no one has the right to abuse them.