Official: Some Miners
by Eric Barker
"There is a class of folks who simply seem to be doing this as part of a protest and just don't want to follow the rules."
A handful of miners on the South Fork of the Clearwater River are clashing with regulatory agencies as the suction dredge season there winds down.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources is considering issuing notices of violations to at least two of the miners. Tim Luke, water compliance bureau chief for the agency, said the miners are not adhering to the terms stated in permits issued by the agency.
"The main issue is not working in areas we had permitted and/or not getting authorization from us before moving to these other areas," Luke said.
He said more miners could be issued notices if it is determined they are violating the terms of their permits. Those citations could carry monetary fines or requirements for remediation. Luke said people who receive such notices are able to request a compliance conference to fix the problem.
The U.S. Forest Service is also monitoring a handful of miners on the river, and is considering whether to take enforcement actions because of their failure to submit required plans of operation.
Quentin Smith, the recreation, engineering, lands and minerals program manager for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, said 14 miners on the South Fork have submitted plans of operations, which are required according to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rules. As many as nine others haven't. The agency, combined with the BLM, issues a maximum of 15 suction dredge mining permits. The miners are also required to obtain permits from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Many of those who are operating without first submitting plans of operation to the Forest Service or acquiring EPA permits have been issued warnings. Smith described it as an attempt by the agency to educate the dredgers about the mining rules and regulations.
"We have worked with many if not all of those individuals, trying to help them understand the regulatory framework," he said.
Many, but not all, of those have chosen to cease operations.
"There is a class of folks who simply seem to be doing this as part of a protest and just don't want to follow the rules," he said.
The agency has not yet decided if it will issue citations but is consulting with the Idaho County Sheriff's Office and the enforcement divisions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the EPA.
"The noncompliant dredgers may be issued violations notices or citations. The key word is may. We haven't determined anything," Smith said.
For many years, miners needed only an easy-to-get permit from Water Resources to operate dredges in Idaho. That changed in 2013, when the EPA required miners to obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit. However, the general permits were not available on the South Fork of the Clearwater River and other rivers that are home to threatened and endangered fish.
That changed in 2016, when the Forest Service completed an environmental analysis on the South Fork that permitted suction dredge mining if certain conditions designed to protect water quality and fish habitat were followed. Miners were required to get an EPA permit, file a plan of operations with the Forest Service and to obtain the special supplement permit from the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
Prior to implementation of the new rules, a handful of miners operated in 2014 without permits on the South Fork, and other rivers such as the Salmon River near Riggins, as a form of protest. They claimed the Mining Act of 1872 gave them wide authority to operate and that the rules implemented by the federal agencies were counter to that law. The agencies, however, said the rules are needed to protect fish habitat and water quality.
At least one miner contacted the Tribune via voice mail last week to complain about actions taken by the Forest Service. Phone calls to the miner and to the American Mining Rights Association have not been returned. Some of the miners have posted videos to www.americanminingrights.com and to the group's Facebook page about the dispute over regulations. In those posts, the miners claim they are not required to obtain the federal permits.
The suction dredge mining season on the South Fork of the Clearwater River ends after Aug. 15.
Update from the SF Clearwater, Idaho
Last night (August 10, 2018) two of the AMRA dredgers were cited for dredging without a PoO (Plan of Operations) by the Forest Service.
Now, we will be able to present this case, along with the mountain of evidence we have obtained including video, affidavits, documents, testimony and case law on this illegal plan to require these permits they say are required.
The court case will be in a few months and we will keep you abreast of these cases as they move forward.
We are meeting again with the California Water Board again shortly over the dredging in 2019 and that will be one of our primary focuses once we leave here.
We are all in the process of reclamation on every one of our dredge holes and have returned the river to its near original condition prior to us arriving. It has been unanimous from all of the people we have talked to about our reclamation, they all believe the reclamation is "awesome" "fantastic" and "amazing".
It has been an experience, that’s for sure and we learned more than we thought possible about the level the USFS is willing to go to continue to enforce what we are confident is an illegal scheme to further restrict and interfere with the small scale suction dredgers up here.
We have several days left and are going to make the most of them.
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