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Suction dredgers get a boost from proposed bill

— The local gold-picking community got a boost last Wednesday, Feb. 11, when a house committee deadlocked on whether to stop Rep. Paul Shepherd’s latest bill, which aims to exempt suction dredging from federal laws under which the Environmental Protection Agency forbids suction dredging in the Clearwater and Salmon river drainages.

EPA’s ban aims to protect the spawning grounds of Idaho’s oceangoing fish, but state rules have long allowed suction dredgers a season during which they can work without putting steelhead or salmon at risk.

The first part of Shepherd’s bill aims to undo the EPA “permit” by which the rivers were closed to suction dredging. The second part would amend the section of state law that governs dredge mining to include “rules for small-scale dredge mining.”

After the committee deadlocked, 9-9, over whether or not to kill the bill, Shepherd proposed one change: to delete a reference to a court case which has since been overturned. The committee then voted to advance the bill with Shepherd’s amendment, which would open it up to further amendments – so it is unclear how much of the current language may survive the legislature’s next step.

But it’s also not clear what the bill would accomplish as-is. Two Republican committeemen – Rep. Marc Gibbs and Rep. Fred Wood – spoke against it.

“It seems to me the single paragraph [to be deleted] is not the only issue with the bill,” Wood said. “More than that…Idaho has a proven methodology of dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency and dealing with the federal government with respect to unpopular items in this state – that being wolves, and that being other things. … We get Congressman [Mike] Simpson to talk to the EPA and, through whatever means necessary, change some of the rules that are so onerous to the people of the state of Idaho. It just seems to me that would be a better approach, because, as much as we would want to, we cannot set aside federal law.”

Gibbs asked the state’s top official lawyers to review Shepherd’s bill. The day before the hearing, he received a letter from Deputy Attorney General Steve Strack that highlighted ways the bill conflicts with the Clean Water, Endangered Species and Wild and Scenic Rivers acts. Strack also pointed out ways the bill conflicts with existing state laws. Based on Strack’s letter, Gibbs said Shepherd’s bill is “fraught with problems.”

“Any time this body gets an opinion from the attorney general that there’s this many problems with a bill, I think it behooves us to either hold the bill in committee or return the bill to the sponsor until those issues are corrected or cleared up,” Gibbs said.

The bill’s ambiguities could – and likely would – cause a variety of state law problems, some of which Strack detailed: it could allow suction dredgers to operate entirely without permits; it could sow confusion between the Department of Lands and the Department of Water Resources; it could lend ammunition to “interests seeking to restrict the sport harvest” of salmon and steelhead; it could be “void and unenforceable.”

That EPA’s ban on suction dredging remains a matter of local urgency was shown by the 70-strong crowd who attended the hearing and told by the Elk City, Riggins and Grangeville-area locals who spoke in its support, including Idaho County Commission chairman Jim Chmelik.

Last summer, the American Mining Rights Association defied the EPA ban by dredging in the South Fork Clearwater River, but complied with the state’s season start date. Last November, AMRA announced it had received a “certified letter from the EPA threatening…imprisonment and fines of up to $525,000.” (The group has since deleted that post.)

Another group – South West Idaho Mining Association – sponsored an “Occupy Idaho Waters” dredge-in protest in Riggins last Independence Day. That group is planning “Occupy 2: Rumble On The River” this July. John Crossman, who heads SWIMA, attended and supported the Bundy Ranch protest in Nevada last year, and described Shepherd’s bill as a way to restore to miners “a vested right…to the exclusive use of the water before agriculture and industry.”


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