Idaho gold miners frustrated by new EPA permit
TWIN FALLS, Idaho – Prospectors hoping to pluck gold from the bottom of Idaho’s rivers face many obstacles.
First there’s water and earth to move. Then there’s the suction dredge they must haul to the river and pull against the current. Not to mention finding an unclaimed stream that hasn’t had all its gold nabbed. Be sure, too, you’ve got your state permit.
Oh yeah, and don’t forget the hot dogs, tents and your permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ensuring you’re not violating the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act.
That last one is a head-scratcher to Brad Dey, president of the Snake River Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America. The state permit has worked well for decades, he said. It was a hoop to jump through, but it wasn’t a burden.
“Unfortunately, there’s no more hoop; they’ve just completely shut it off,” he said of the new EPA permit required since May.
The permit is necessary to protect water quality, preserve the habitat of Idaho’s endangered species and comply with the Clean Water Act, say EPA officials and conservationists.
Angry miners aren’t correctly thinking about the permit that the Idaho Conservation League pushed the EPA to implement here, said Justin Hayes, the league’s program director. It is a shield that gives them a legal and environmental certainty for their exploration, Hayes said.
Many miners, though, say the permit – a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) general permit – is a federal overreach, creates a lengthy and complicated process and closes or restricts many popular gold streams. It is keeping many miners from doing what they love, Dey said.
Of the 911 suction dredgers with state permits, 60 have obtained EPA location-specific permits.
It’s been an interesting few months, said Tracy DeGering, Boise-based EPA environmental scientist.
She said the many calls and emails she’s fielded make her think gold miners misunderstand the permit. Yes, it’s more restrictive and robust, DeGering said, but the agency is not maliciously targeting miners.
“A lot of miners think we are picking on them and nobody else. It goes back to the Clean Water Act, and the discharge of pollutants requires a permit.”
The Clean Water Act stipulates that “point source discharges of pollutants into waters” require permits, DeGering said.
Gold suction dredges are floating vacuums that suck up and spit out dirt and water, leaving flakes of gold behind. The Clean Water Act defines them as point sources and the rock and sand as pollutants. Idaho was one of the last states to implement EPA dredging regulations through the NPDES process.
The state gold-dredging permit is akin to a fishing license, said Aaron Golart, coordinator of the stream protection program in the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
Miners apply, agree to comply with state rules and observe its list of open, seasonally restricted and closed rivers. They are allowed to use a motor of 15 horsepower or less and a nozzle no more than 5 inches wide. They are not allowed to affect the riverbanks, Golart said.
Riding the rising price of gold, more and more miners have been asking for state permits, Golart said. From April 2007 to March 2008, as the price of gold hit $750 an ounce, the state issued 550 permits. It issued 911 permits from April 2012 to March 2013, when the price hit $1,500 an ounce.
The NPDES permitting system wasn’t implemented because of increased mining or any EPA-documented issue, DeGering said.
It’s all centered on enforcement of the Clean Water Act and the Idaho Conservation League’s threat to sue the EPA for not regulating miners’ discharge, Hayes said. Those threats came from meetings between the EPA and the League, Hayes said.
In 2010, the EPA issued a first draft of the permit and its regulations, DeGering said. Officials took comments, held meetings and eventually issued a second draft permit in 2012. This April, the permit was finalized.
Because the permit overlaps with waters containing endangered and threatened species – bull trout, steelhead, sturgeon, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon and various snails – the EPA coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“If a suction dredge is in the stream at a time when we have eggs in the gravel . it’s easy to imagine suction dredge mining interrupting endangered fish and probably killing eggs,” said David Mabe, Idaho director for the Fisheries Service.
If a miner wants to dredge in critical habitat, DeGering said, he must obtain an Endangered Species Act consultation – a lengthy process examining where and when a miner could work and not affect species of concern, such as not dredging during spawning season.
The EPA and other agencies have approved regulated dredging of Lolo Creek and Moose Creek in northern Idaho.
Twin Falls resident Jim Kepner bought his used 3-inch, 5.5-horsepower dredge for $500. New dredges cost up to $4,000. But Kepner’s dredge has sat unused in his garage for two years.
He and several other miners bought a claim on the Payette River for $2,000 but were denied access to it when the EPA’s permitting started because of critical habitat for bull trout, he said.
“We’re out $2,000, and nobody is going to buy it from us now,” he said.
Kepner recently received an EPA permit to dredge along the Snake River near American Falls. His hopes aren’t high, though. He said many of the rivers with the best gold now are EPA-regulated or off-limits because of critical habitat and endangered species.
Idaho is a big state, and miners can hide in remote areas. But when they are found, the courts won’t look favorably on their activities, Hayes said. Under the Clean Water Act, environmental groups can act as enforcement agents and send a 60-day notice of intent to sue the EPA in hopes of compelling the agency into action.
“We did that a year and a half ago with a small gold mine in the town of Atlanta (in Elmore County), and their failure to comply … has resulted in a $2 million penalty for them,” he said.
So far, the EPA hasn’t filed charges against illegal dredgers, instead focusing on education and outreach, said Jim Werntz, operations office director for the EPA in Idaho.
EPA is working through growing pains with the permit and hopes to approve permits more quickly, DeGering said.
“We want folks to apply and ask questions and be patient with us.”