Dredge Mining

BOISE - In a ruling dated June 4, Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush in Boise federal court determined that a suction dredge miner polluted the South Fork of the Clearwater River and needed a permit as required under the Clean Water Act. The Idaho Conservation League, represented by Advocates for the West, filed the lawsuit against Shannon Poe of California regarding his 42 days of suction dredge mining on the Idaho river.

Judge Bush ruled against each of the arguments Poe’s lawyers put before him. His ruling confirms that suction dredge mining requires permits under the Clean Water Act, and that the removal, processing, and disposal of material sucked from the bottom of rivers and streams with motorized equipment constitute a “discharge.”

ICL’s Director of External Relations Jonathan Oppenheimer said, “Dirtying Idaho’s waters by suction dredge mining degrades our rivers, threatens water quality, and further endangers our fish and wildlife. Today’s ruling demonstrates that we all must do our part to protect clean water.”

He added, “Judge Bush’s decision clearly spells out the important protections requiring dredge miners to abide by rules designed to protect clean water. Whether you’re a boater, angler, logger, or miner, you have to follow the rules; it’s our responsibility as citizens.”

“This decision sends a strong message to suction dredge miners that they are not above the law,” said Bryan Hurlbutt, staff attorney at Advocates for the West. “This is also a victory for the South Fork Clearwater, a river that sees high levels of suction dredging and suffers from excessive sediment pollution.”

Following the June 4 decision that Poe committed unpermitted suction dredge mining on 42 separate days, the court will now consider the appropriate penalty. The only other similar case against another South Fork Clearwater River dredge miner resulted in a penalty of $6,600 for a single day of dredging. A similar per-day penalty for Poe would result in a fine of over $277,000, but Poe’s repeated violations, ignoring warnings, and encouraging others to do the same could warrant even higher penalties.

ICL filed the lawsuit in federal court against suction dredge miner Poe in August 2018 for violating the Clean Water Act. In Sept. 2019, the court denied Poe’s motion to dismiss and held that ICL could move ahead with the case. In August 2020, the court heard arguments on Poe’s Clean Water Act violations.

For years, Poe and his organization, the American Mining Rights Association have encouraged miners to ignore federal rules on the South Fork of the Clearwater River, which provides habitat for several threatened, endangered and sensitive fish, including steelhead, salmon, bull trout, and pacific lamprey.

ICL monitors suction dredge mining and has placed several miners on notice to ensure they follow requirements and avoid polluting Idaho’s rivers and public lands. In Idaho, these miners must apply for permits to comply with state and federal rules to protect endangered species, water quality, and other public resources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality require all miners to obtain a Clean Water Act permit. The agencies also limit suction dredge mining in Idaho rivers that provide critical habitat for fish or have too much sediment.

Dredge mining can wreak havoc on fish, wildlife habitat, riverbanks, waterways, and riverbeds. A high-powered vacuum sucks up gravel and sediment at the bottom of a stream, dumps the material into a sluice box to capture gold, if any, and then spews the gravel and sediment back into the water.