In 1997, with support from mining interests, the Washington legislature directed WDFW to update the Gold and Fish pamphlet so that "...small scale prospecting and mining shall be regulated in the least burdensome manner that is consistent with the state's fish management objectives and the federal endangered species act." WDFW believes THIS legislation specifically prevents them from regulating and enforcing existing mining rules and regulations.
Peer-reviewed scientific studies continue to implicate the role of suction dredge mining in destroying fish, spawning grounds, and other aquatic habitat. California, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia have found the increasing body of research compelling enough to justify curtailing or eliminating suction dredge mining while more studies are conducted.
Prohibited or restricted from legally dredging in neighboring states, miners are now focused on Washington thanks to our relative lack of regulation and enforcement.
A pro-mining attorney is advising suction dredge miners to refuse to notify federal agencies of their actions even though they are required to do so by the Gold and Fish pamphlet. Of the 1,000 HPA permits we examined that WDFW granted to miners wishing to operate beyond the rules in Gold and Fish, not one had filed a Notice of Intent with the USFS.
HPA applications require miners to identify and disclose the presence of fish in their claim. Yet pro-mining sites routinely advise them to write 'No fish present' on the form to avoid scrutiny.
The courts have consistently found that the provisions of the 1872 Mining Act are secondary to environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. There is no absolute 'right' to prospect for gold that trumps these laws.
Suction dredge miners routinely remove or displace in-stream boulders, root wads, and logs from streams to gain access to the gravel under them. These objects provide fish with critical habitat, and when moved, put fish at risk. There are currently no provisions for requiring miners to replace habitat or to repair or remediate the damage they've caused.
In 2013, Washington State taxpayers spent over $216 million in salmon and steelhead restoration projects. Many of those projects are jeopardized by suction dredge miners.
The WDFW literally has no idea where miners are operating or when. The department does not track where miners work or when and are unable to monitor their activities or provide enforcement.
Unlike many other forms of outdoor recreation, suction dredge miners pay no licensing fees to the state of Washington.
Suction dredge mining releases mercury, copper, and zinc into the water, resulting in potentially severe damage to fish and other aquatic species.
A retired mining engineer stated, “Large scale miners have to follow all sorts of regulations. These hobby miners with their suction dredges can do more damage than a large gold mine, because they are not regulated and there is no enforcement.”
Myths and Misrepresentations
Myth: Suction dredge mining is good for fish.
Truth: Miners insist that fish flock around the end of their plume, feasting on larva and other invertebrates churned up by their dredges. Others believe that fish prefer to 'hide' their sediment plumes as a refuge from predators. Despite these unverified claims, common sense suggests that it's impossible to remove up to 2,100 cubic feet of gravel per day without causing an adverse impact to sensitive and complex ecosystems. Dredging creates an unnatural disturbance to the stream bottom, dislodges or removes habitat and shelter used by fish, destroys spawning beds, scours invertebrates and fresh water mussels, destabilizes riffles and pools, and removes important food sources for all aquatic species. Sediment plumes can cover spawning redds downstream from the mining claim and prevent eggs from hatching.
Myth: People opposed to suction dredge mining have an agenda.
Truth: Miners frequently complain that anybody opposed to them is against 'freedom' and 'liberty'. In fact, miners in Washington state have greater freedom than do fishermen, who in many streams are banned from fishing due to concern over ESA-listed species and habitat degradation. If a stream is too sensitive to allow fishing, then it's too sensitive to allow mining, even during so-called 'work windows'. The millions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of volunteer man-hours that have been spent to restore fisheries are slowly being wasted through the cumulative negative impact of unrestricted mining.
Myth: Miners have a 'right' to mine because of the General Mining Act of 1872.
Truth: Mining is not a right, it's a privilege and it's one that's being systematically abused. The General Mining Act of 1872 was signed by president Ulysses S. Grant as a means to encourage development in the sparsely-settled west. Times have changed in the nearly century and a half since then as has our understanding of the adverse impacts of mining. The courts have determined that the 1872 Mining Act is not absolute and that it's provisions can be subordinated by environmental laws and regulations. For example, Washington state has opted to administer the Clean Water Act. Through that authority, it can and shall regulate hobby mining, modifying the provisions of the 1872 Mining Act with its own rules and regulations.
Myth: Scientific studies critical of mining have an agenda.
Truth: The few studies that support mining were written by scientists with little or no experience in field research. Their studies have not been peer-reviewed. The studies that are critical of mining and have been peer-reviewed do indeed have an agenda - to determine the truth. The very purpose of peer-reviewing is to prevent bias. Peers are chosen to review, comment, and even reject publication of scientific studies, in order to keep the science as unbiased as possible. Frequently, the peers who are chosen do not agree with the author's work or conclusions and therefore their review adds more critical weight. Authors of studies that have not been peer-reviewed may be concerned that their conclusions will not be verified by independent, unbiased scientists.
Myth: Suction dredgers clean up their sites.
Truth: We are grateful for good citizens, especially those who take the time to clean up after those who dump trash or waste in our streams and on our public lands. However, suction dredgers frequently live at their claims (also known as permacamps) for weeks or even months at a time without any sanitary facilities or provisions for removing garbage or food waste. These permacamps are located on riparian areas where waste can easily leech into the adjoining stream, adding even more toxicity to the ecosystem. We have evidence of unauthorized dams and diversions, holes left unfilled, permanent fixtures left in the public woods.
Myth: Suction dredgers improve stream quality by removing mercury.
Truth: Miners occasionally dredge in areas with prior gold mining activity. In the past, industrial-scale mining operations used mercury to amalgamate tiny gold flakes into nuggets. Once the gold was removed, the mercury was discarded, where it often found its way into the streambed where it settled with other toxic metals like zinc and copper. When mercury is sufficiently concentrated, some miners do collect and recycle it. But when disturbed, mercury readily converts into the compound methylmercury, a powerful neurotoxin that accumulates like DDT in fish and aquatic organisms that ingest it as it washes downstream in the dredge's sediment plume.
Myth: Miners insist that they follow all the rules and there is no need for more regulation.
Truth: Washington miners are not even complying with the current regulations in the WDFW's Gold and Fish pamphlet or HPAs. They refuse to obey the requirement to notify Federal agencies when they are mining, they fail to restore their mining sites, and they do not identify or disclose the presence of fish in streams on their claim. Because they pay no permitting or licensing fees, mining is in effect a taxpayer-subsidized hobby. Considering the evidence to date that has implicated suction dredge mining with adverse biological impacts, it's only prudent to consider additional regulations or even an outright moratorium (like that recently implemented in California and parts of Idaho, or a reduction in mining permits such as recently imposed in Oregon) while those impacts are studied in more detail.