The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests are going forward with a plan to regulate suction dredging on the South Fork Clearwater River, in a move that will reopen the riverbed to as many as 15 small scale mining operations per year. Prior to 2012, small-scale suction dredging in the river had faced only state-level regulation from the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which had required only a letter permit.
Suction dredgers with a local group, Rocky Mountain Mining Rights (RMMR), say they intend to appeal.
In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a Clean Water Act permit, known as a general NPDES permit, which allowed suction dredging in much of the state but not in salmon-bearing river drainages including, locally, the Salmon and the Clearwater. Some suction dredgers began participating in organized opposition. The organized opposition included local groups which have worked to lobby the state legislature and outside groups which have directly protested the EPA permit.
Ron Miller of Stites formed RMRR as an advocacy group in May 2014, and Don Smith of Riggins has worked closely with Rep. Paul Shepherd to try to advance pro-dredging bills in the state legislature. American Mining Rights Association (AMRA), Shannon Poe of Coulterville, Calif., held dredging protest events on the South Fork during the summers of 2014 and 2015. South West Idaho Mining Association, headed by John Crossman of Boise, organized protests on the Salmon River and elsewhere after joining the 2014 Bundy Ranch protests in Nevada.
Both RMMR and AMRA have continued to publicly oppose the steps the Forest Service has taken to implement the EPA permit on the South Fork.
Meanwhile, environmentalists have supported the permit, as Jonathan Oppenheimer of Boise, the senior conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League, touted in a news release last Thursday, July 7, “a new system in place this year that is going to attempt to better control the illegal mining that we saw last year.”
Environmentalists and miners have been at odds over what effect, if any, dredging will have on migratory fish and water quality. Miners claim they remove heavy metals – and show off ounces upon ounces of gold and lead as well as pounds and pounds of garbage they pull from the river to demonstrate their work does not harm – or possibly benefits – the environment. Environmentalists have charged that releasing gravels from the riverbeds can cause problems for spawning areas and, on balance, release more heavy metals to the river that would otherwise be trapped in the riverbed.
The new Forest Service permit is unlikely to change minds on either side of that question, as it frames suction dredging as yet another activity that can be done harmlessly so long as it’s done in an organized and limited way.
Suction dredgers used to fill out less than two pages of paperwork to obtain the state letter permit, but this year, the state will require from South Fork dredgers a new permit which closely aligns with the new Forest Service requirement. The state’s new form requires information similar to what the old form required, plus: project start and end dates, a declaration as to whether the project is located near a historical site, claim names and legal description/coordinates, a vicinity map and other diagrams and a description of all aspects of the mining operation. That last part includes describing “exploration methods, materials, equipment, workforce, operation schedule, tailing disposal, proposed number of dredging holes and depth, and how gravel/tailings will be replaced.”
The new state permit paperwork also requires miners to describe “measures to maintain and protect fish and wildlife and their habitat affected by the operations” – followed by a site visit with a fisheries biologist, followed by written approval of a dredge ID card from IDWR. The IDWR program instructions are 25 pages long.
Miller last month told the Free Press the paperwork is too burdensome and should not be required.
“When you get down to it, it’s unworkable and undoable,” Miller said Monday, July 11. “There’s no way you can go by that permit and not get shut down. If you’re going by the mining laws, it’s overly regulated. They’re interfering with the right to mine. … We’re not trying to tear up the world. We just want to work in the river, peacefully.”
On Tuesday, July 12, AMRA president Shannon Poe noted that among the new paperwork required is a bond – $250, minimum, he said – and more depending on the specific site to be dredged.
Miller informed the Free Press his group intends to appeal, and said the new regulation would interfere with miners’ “assessment work.” Poe called the new regulation “an example of the Forest Service supervisor ignoring facts and science” and said it appears to him “ideologically driven.”
Nez Perce-Clearwater Forests Supervisor Cheryl Probert’s decision traces its legal authority to regulate through a series of federal laws including: the 1872 Mining Law, the Organic Administration Act of 1897, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Multiple Use Mining Act of 1955, the Mining and Mineral Policy Act of 1970 and others. Her decision notes “the act of placer mining inherently modifies some portion of the stream channel or riparian zone, because substrate, sediment or soil is moved from one place to another and sorted…the agencies do not have the authority to deny this basic activity, but do have the ability to place conditions on the methods, timing and (to some extent) location of this movement and sorting.”
Previously, Probert told the Free Press the decision is meant to make it easier for small-scale operators to pass muster with federal regulators.
Miners have questioned federal authority in the state legislature.
Smith and Shepherd have pushed bills that would further limit or even eliminate federal regulation authority, and the legislature – on the advice of the state attorney general’s office – has opposed Shepherd’s bills. The AG’s office has advised the legislature Shepherd’s bills would run afoul of the constitution and conflict with the federal mining laws. The legislature has spiked four different tries by Shepherd during the last two years.
Under Probert’s decision, the miners are asked to satisfy the Forest Service; the Forest Service has satisfied the agencies that have jurisdiction over certain animals through the Endangered Species Act, so obtaining the Forest Service permit clears the way for the EPA to issue the NPDES permit to the miner.
It’s not clear how many miners will have sought and received the paperwork by Friday, but at least a dozen have applied. Some miners have told the Free Press they intend to suction dredge on the South Fork once again in protest this season. Traditionally, and elsewhere in the state, the suction dredging season has run July 15-Aug. 15 – timed so as to avoid conflict with the anadromous fish runs.
Late last month, Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings told the Free Press his office does not enforce federal regulations – that his job in the circumstance is to protect the miners from federal intrusion.
Meanwhile, the EPA is weighing complaints against two miners – Dave Erlanson Sr. of Swan Valley and Robert Rice Jr. of Idaho Falls.
Both complaints date to July 22, 2015, when a Forest Service inspector – geologist Clint Hughes – observed each man operating a suction dredge in the South Fork Clearwater River, near MM 39, where AMRA had held its protest in 2014.
Erlanson and Rice face EPA penalties of up to $16,000. The EPA is taking public comments on each case through July 29.