House committee kills perennial suction dredging bill—for now

Idaho's rivers and fish won yesterday when the Idaho House Resources and Conservation Committee voted to nix a bill that sought to exempt recreational dredge mining from state water quality regulations.

About 100 people gathered at the Idaho statehouse to weigh in on House Bill 510, sponsored by Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins. It's the third consecutive year Shepherd brought a failed dredging bill to the Legislature, and it's the second time such a bill earned a rebuke from the Attorney General's office.

By prohibiting state agencies from adopting rules that regulate dredge mining the bill would eliminate state efforts to manage the federal pollution discharge program, wrote Deputy Attorney General Steven Strack about this year's bill.

Strack also pointed out that the bill would not work retroactively with respect to rivers designated natural or recreational under the state protected river system. While it's still bad legislation for Idaho's  rivers, it wouldn't actually have much of an effect on the number of rivers open to dredge mining while simultaneously giving up the ability for the state to manage water pollution.

The three consecutive annual attempts to clear the way for suction dredging in Idaho follow a 2012 move by the Environmental Protection Agency, which released its Idaho General Permit for suction dredge operations. A key provision of the permit is that it is not applicable on stream reaches that include federal Wild and Scenic Rivers, State Protected Rivers or critical habitat for endangered species—including salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

Despite claims by dredgers that their mining improves river health, there are significant concerns that dredging poses a significant threat to fish listed under the Endangered Species Act and river health in general.

For example, mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, is found deep in the sediment of many rivers and streams throughout Idaho. When disturbed by dredging, mercury can enter the water column and then sift upward through the food chain—ultimately arriving in the tissues of fish, humans and larger predators that feed on fish. Dreding also disturbs sensitive habitat and increases siltation during the time of year when rivers and streams normally run clear.

Although the committee's vote was a win for Idaho's rivers for now, Shepherd has displayed a dogged determination to bring the issue back, regardless of constitutionality or legality. Moreover, several members of the committee urged him try again.