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Suction dredgers defy EPA permit, again

— Two of the three years since a federal requirement purported to close Idaho County’s major river drainages to suction dredging, Shannon Poe and the American Mining Rights Association have suction dredged in the South Fork Clearwater River. The issue veered in a stranger direction late last month, when a Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests employee gave some dredgers “notices of noncompliance,” only for the Forest Service to turn around and tell the Lewiston Tribune “it will take no further action and instead will move forward with a process that could open the river to limited mining next year.”

Earlier this year, the combined forests started working on a plan to establish procedures to “protect surface resources including special status fish, prevent undue degradation, and improve approval process.” The initial comment period on that “Small-scale Placer Mining Project” environmental assessment closed in April.

“We are also preparing the analysis to go through consultation with the regulatory agencies, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Idaho State Historic Preservation Office,” combined forests supervisor Cheryl Probert said Friday, Aug. 7. “We anticipate the EA will be available for public notice and comment this fall, but not this month.”

One of the first links in this chain of events was forged in 2013, when the Environmental Protection Agency, citing the Clean Water Act, issued a general permit for small-scale suction dredging in Idaho but did not allow for small-scale suction dredging in the Salmon or Clearwater river drainages, where ocean-going fish such as chinook salmon and steelhead spawn.

In March 2014, the Free Press spoke to EPA Idaho office director Jim Werntz, who said the permit “doesn’t address the feelings for those who want to dredge in the closed areas, but that is something we want to improve for the dredging community. We want it to work. We want people to have places to do their trade and their hobby.”

Suction dredging uses a pump and a sluice on a pontoon, drawing material from the river bottom up to the sluice, which separates gold from the river rock before returning the sandy, gravelly material to the river. That material appears to settle quickly.

Suction dredgers contend that returning river rock to the river a bit downstream from where it came does not pollute, and contend all signs of the previous season’s work are swept away by the surge of the following spring’s runoff.

How the dispute between the suction dredgers and the EPA will ultimately be resolved is unclear, but a civil case in federal court is likely. The Free Press has previously reported local Forest Service projects often take two to three years to complete – and it’s not clear if suction dredgers who are willing to defy the existing permit would abide by a streamlined version. Beyond that, Poe has threatened to sue the Forest Service over the actions of Clint Hughes, the geologist who handed out the notices of noncompliance.

“The end result is, it needs to go to federal court and have a federal judge rule on it,” Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings said July 27. “That, most likely, will happen. But until it does, there’s all these debates and arguments between some guy who thinks he’s the king and some guy who doesn’t like the king. We try to maintain a somewhat in-between stance, but until the Forest Service or the BLM or the EPA or any other federal agency comes up with some facts rather than just their opinions, we’re pretty much on the side of the citizen. When a federal judge makes a ruling, then we’ll know which way to lean.”

Another way it could be resolved would be through the ordinary political process. State Rep. Paul Shepherd, and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo are working on bills at the state and national levels, respectively.

Shepherd proposed two bills during last year’s session at the state legislature, both of which were eventually returned to the House Resources and Conservation Committee, of which Shepherd is a member. After the session ended, Shepherd brought the issue to the Natural Resources interim committee, of which he is an ad hoc member.

At the federal level, Crapo has been working with colleagues including Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, to develop a bill in the U.S. Congress this fall. Outside of Congress, Crapo has been working with the Idaho Recreation Council and others.

“Committee Chairman Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has said he is supportive of the idea, which could provide direction to the EPA on this issue,” Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said Aug. 7.

The Free Press spoke at length with Poe about suction dredging last summer; find that article online at


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