It’s a gorgeous Washington summer day. Sunburned rafters are floating through a lazy section of the Wenatchee River. As they drift past a pontoon tethered to shore with a motorized suction pump and a long hose, a miner in a wet suit looks like he is vacuuming up the river bottom. Earlier, he used a pry bar to shift a heavy boulder and a comealong to move a large log so his nozzle could suck up the sediment underneath. As the rafts pass, the passengers see a plume of murky sediment, over 200 yards long, extending downstream from the dredge. Unseen quantities of zinc, copper and mercury – metals formerly locked in the river bottom - are now drifting in the sediment plume alongside their raft.
Like many other rivers in Washington state, the Wenatchee is listed as critical habitat for salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. At times during fishing season, the Wenatchee and many of its tributaries are closed to fishermen because those fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The Yakima is Washington’s only Blue Ribbon fly fishing river. The Methow is a legendary steelhead and trout river. The South Fork of the Nooksack is a prime steelhead spawning sanctuary. Yet each of these rivers, in fact every river, stream, and headwater in Washington, are open to suction dredge mining year ‘round.
Mining laws in Washington State are appallingly behind current science. Years of longitudinal studies in California have concluded the cumulative impacts from suction dredging on salmon, steelhead, and resident trout populations, are enormous. Destruction of redds, refugia, and release of toxic metals are just a few of the problems resulting from suction dredge mining. Washington state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in restoring salmon, steelhead, and trout streams. Countless numbers of volunteer hours are devoted to work in riparian areas. Yet a suction dredge miner, with a pry bar, a winch, and a dredge, can undo all that work in a matter of moments.
The administrators of our state’s mining program, the Washington Department of Fish and Game (WDFW), have no idea who is mining, where they are mining, or when they are mining. The only permit a miner needs to suction dredge for gold in Washington is to download a copy of the state’s Gold and Fish pamphlet. There are no licensing fees. And despite a requirement that miners notify the appropriate federal agencies where they are mining, most do not because they don’t want to invite any scrutiny of their actions.
Washington’s rivers are slowly being destroyed by a few hobby miners.