The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new permit and rules for recreational miners who use small-scale suction dredging equipment to explore for gold in rivers and creeks across Idaho.
The federal agency’s permit imposes a set of new rules, best practices and limits on how and where suction dredging can occur, including an outright closure on the Salmon River, main stems of the state’s biggest rivers and waters passing through all tribal lands.
Starting this season, miners who dredge river bottoms using intake nozzles 5-inches in diameter or less and powered by engines rated at 15 horsepower or less will have to obtain the free permit and operate under its guidelines or risk sanctions, agency officials said.
The federal permit — the first of its kind for Idaho — was designed to ensure miners adhered to the Clean Water Act and protect water quality and spawning habitat for salmon, steelhead, bull trout and other species yet still provide opportunities for the hundreds of recreational miners that set up on Idaho’s rivers and streams each summer and fall.
“Our goal was to provide the maximum amount of available waters where there weren’t impacts on fish and wildlife,” said Jim Werntz, director of the EPA office in Idaho. “It is a balancing act. The challenge is dredgers want to dredge where the gold is, and sometimes where the gold is happens to be in” areas we needed to protect fish and other species.
“We tried to keep as much of the state open as we could,” he said.
The permit is specifically tailored to establish guidelines and best practice operations for the water, gravel and sediment discharged back into the river by suction dredge equipment. But it also includes waterways closed to mining, rules for operating near fish spawning beds and requires miners to set up shop at least 800 feet from each other. It also establishes new monitoring and reporting requirements and erosion controls.
Idaho already requires suction dredge miners to get a $10 permit and adhere to rules on where, how and when mining can be done. But it doesn’t factor in the tougher standards of the federal Clean Water Act, and for years, environmental groups have pressured the EPA to craft a permit with tougher rules and regulations, especially for restoring sections of riverbed stirred and altered by hobbyist miners seeking gold and other precious metals with floating, mechanized vacuums and sluice boxes.
Brad Smith, with the Idaho Conservation League, the state’s most outspoken critic of dredge mining, said the EPA’s new rules and regulations are still under review.
“Overall, much like hunting or fishing, I think it’s important to have some kind of system in place to manage these mining operations and find ways to use the natural resources wisely,” Smith said.
Other states have taken stronger positions on suction dredge mining. In 2009, California imposed a moratorium on the activity set to expire in 2016, forcing miners there to try their luck in states like Oregon and Idaho. In Oregon, where suction dredging permits have doubled from 934 in 2009 to 1,941 last year, lawmakers resumed their debate on whether to impose tougher rules and restrictions or even a moratorium.
Idaho has also seen an increase in recreational miners as rising gold prices in recent years has prompted more people to scour the beds of rivers and creeks for gold flakes or other precious metals.
The state issued 912 permits last year, but because Idaho requires each individual to get a permit, officials estimate the number of actual dredging machines across the state is less than half that total. The state issued some 600 permits in 2008.
EPA officials say people intending to mine Idaho waters this year will be able to apply for the five-year permit next month and take part in information sessions on the new rules.
By nature, members of the suction dredge community don’t welcome the idea of more government oversight on how and where they can operate, said Gary Scott, president of the Idaho Gold Prospector’s Association.
“Some are probably thinking it’s the end of the world for prospecting,” Scott said. “Change is always hard to accept. But many of us realize there needs to be guidelines to protect the environment. In the end, we’re not out there to be detrimental.”
For now, EPA officials say they will emphasize education over enforcement of violators. The Clean Water Act does include civil and criminal penalties for offenders.
“There is a lot of change here,” Werntz said. “We will respond to complaints, but our focus is not on doing an enforcement sweep. Our goal now is to get people educated.”