Mining Gold In The Northwest Causes Conflict

Sep 20, 2012

A recreational gold miner in Idaho now has the exclusive right to mine for gold on a stretch of the Salmon River. But the lease process approved by the Idaho Land Board this week raised some questions about the process he will use to get the gold. Aaron Kunz with EarthFix explains.

There are hundreds of miles on the Salmon River where the only noise you’ll hear is rushing water and wildlife. But in certain places during the summer you might hear this...

Twin engines attached to a small boat allow gold miners to suck dirt from the bottom of the river and extract small gold particles from the riverbed. It’s called suction dredge mining and Ricky Eddy does this north of Riggins.

Eddy: “It’s just a thrill, when you see gold. It’s like... it will give you gold fever [laughs]. It’s for real.”

Eddy and his friend are from Sacramento, California. They came here to do small scale dredge mining on the Salmon River.

This type of mining can be found throughout the west. Oregon has 1,300 permit holders - Idaho has 700 this year. That’s higher than it was five years ago. Now a single ounce of gold is worth $1,500. But don’t plan on striking it rich - on a good day it’s possible to collect a quarter of an ounce. Most never get that lucky.

California has a moratorium on suction dredge mining. State leaders put a stop to the practice until they can develop regulations for the 3,500 miners that have permits. Eddy is one of them. He believes mining has little impact on the river.

Eddy: “There has been actual studies with biologists in the rivers studying the fish. And not only did they find that it wasn’t harmful provided you don’t dredge up salmon redds... eggs. That was the only impact they ever found. So they don’t allow us to dredge when the fish are spawning.”

The study he refers to isn’t widely recognized by state regulators in California. Eddy also says miners help remove small amounts of mercury and lead weights used by fishermen on the Salmon River.

Roy Akins is an outfitter from Riggins and he disagrees with Eddy’s claim that miners do more good than harm.

Akins: “Even though they say one of the contributions to their dredging is that they do pull mercury and fishing lead out of the river. Even though probably in a lot of cases it’s probably better to have it stable and hidden down there in the river.”

Akins takes paying customers on fishing trips during the summer months on the Salmon River. It’s a big business - about 10,000 people float the Salmon River every year.

Akins: “This would be a real placid stretch of the river, it would be real quiet. but right now we would definitely be hearing the sound in this area dominated by the beginning roar of the rapids just below us...the time zone rapid.”

Aaron Kunz: “What we are hearing now is what it sounds like without the engine.”

Akins: “Now you can hear the time zone rapid...”

In Riggins, mining has split the town in half. On one side - there are those that survive on suction dredge mining. Using the small profits they make selling gold to pay the bills. On the other side, outfitters like Akins depend on fishing and feel suction dredge mining hurts business.

It has forced some states to reevaluate how they regulate suction dredge mining.

Voice: “The next item we have before us is tab 7 - this is the approval of the riverbed mineral lease for Mr. Conklin...”

Mike Conklin of Grangeville asked the Idaho Land Board this week to approve a mineral lease on a half mile stretch of the Salmon River. He wants exclusive rights to mine this area. To do that he needs a mining permit from the Idaho Department of Water Resources and a mineral lease from the Idaho Department of Lands which the board signed off on this week.

The Idaho Conservation League’s Jonathan Oppenheimer isn’t pleased with the decision.

Oppenheimer: “We think that Idahoans and citizens from around the country and around the world put a much higher value on clean water and pristine habitat that the Salmon River represents.”

One of Oppenheimer’s big concerns is the lack of federal Clean Water Act enforcement. In Idaho - the EPA hasn’t enforced the law when it comes to suction dredge miners on the Salmon River.

Dave Tomten with the EPA says no permits have been issued for any miner on the Salmon River. That means any dredge mining on the river is technically illegal and the penalty is a $30,000 fine. The EPA has instead focused on developing a general mining permit for Idaho. The agency plans to release that at the end of the year. The new permit could restrict mining on the Salmon River altogether, says Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer: "So it would make this somewhat moot and the big question is whether the EPA will begin enforcement of the Clean Water Act.”

Despite the divide in Riggins over suction dredge mining. Most here believe there can be a way to coexist in a town with few jobs.

Akins: “So it’s just something that needs to be looked at better and we need to find a better way to do both activities so that we are not interfering with each other and creating conflicts.”

The question is - can they find a way to share the river in a way that maintains the health of the Salmon River for the next generation.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio