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Suction dredging bill stalls


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Idaho Capitol Building

— Each of the last three sessions at the state legislature, suction dredge miners have pushed for legislation to roll back state and federal regulation of their practice. With a voice vote last Tuesday, Feb. 23, the House Natural Resources Committee opted not to advance the dredgers’ latest proposal.

Idaho Department of Water Resources director Gary Spackman told the committee the dredgers’ bill would have removed “the state from having any role in regulating this activity,” which involves using a pump and a sluice on a pontoon to sort gold from riverbed sediment. The pump draws water and sandy material through a nozzle, up a tube to the sluice, where the flow carries the gravels over riffles that trap gold, eventually returning the loose rock to the river.

State regulations presently govern each part of the process, from nozzle diameter and engine size to where and when suction dredges are allowed.

The bill brought to the committee by Rep. Paul Shepherd would have redefined each, but Michael Gibson of Trout Unlimited described the bill as a proposal “to eliminate regulatory oversight.”

“There is no reason why this one activity should avoid permitting,” Gibson said, noting the bill would allow processing of up to five cubic yards of riverbed material per hour, with potential impacts ranging from altering “the very course of a river” to allowing mercury “to enter the food chain” to depositing “invasive species from Washington, Oregon and other states…in Idaho streams.”

With the price of gold continuing to tick above $1,000 per ounce, the suction dredge miners will continue to work on legislation, Don Smith of Riggins told the Free Press last Wednesday.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Forest Service is pursuing a plan that would allow 15 suction dredging operations per year in a stretch of the South Fork Clearwater River, starting 1.5 miles upstream of Harpster and ending about two miles below Elk City. See


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