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Miners to protest EPA overreach

By Lewiston Morning Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho) 

The miners will gather near Riggins around the Fourth of July and run their suction dredges in an act of civil disobedience, said John Crossman of the Southwest Idaho Mining Association at Boise.

“We are going to civilly protest the EPA and move them out of the state of Idaho,” Crossman said. “We want the governor to sign legislation that they are not allowed to be here.”

The group is working with Idaho County commissioner and lieutenant governor candidate Jim Chmelik to organize the protest that will last about a week.

“They want to have a nice peaceful demonstration and say we are tired of the EPA telling us what they can and cannot do,” Chmelik said.

Last year the EPA required small suction dredge miners to acquire National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits before operating in the state. Miners previously operated under state permits. Although EPA officials contend the federal permits have always been required under the Clean Water Act, it took the agency several years to create a permit that the miners could apply for without first having to perform extensive environmental studies. Known as a general permit, it is designed to make it easy for small miners to acquire.

But the permit came with new regulations that forbid operating suction dredges in most of the streams that are home to threatened or endangered species like salmon, steelhead and bull trout, streams and rivers on Indian reservations or rivers that are part of the National Wild and Scenic River system. Those regulations effectively banned dredging in most of the streams in the Salmon and Clearwater river basins as well as several other of the state’s watersheds.

The miners take issue with the need for the permit and say their dredges don’t pollute or harm the environment or fish. The dredges work by sucking up sand, gravel and other sediment from the bottoms of streams and rivers. A sluice box separates the gold and other heavy material and discharges the rest back into the water.

Crossman said because the material comes from the river in the first place, it shouldn’t be considered a pollutant and certainly not one that miners are introducing into the river.

“If you have a bowl of soup and pick up a spoonful of soup and don’t move it and you pour it back in, where did you introduce something into it? You didn’t,” he said. “They say we are introducing pollution back into the stream.”

Crossman believes miners have case law and science on their side, but he said the agency won’t listen.

“It’s like the man behind the curtain. You can’t get anywhere with these people,” he said.

Jim Werntz, director of the EPA’s Idaho office and Tracy DeGering an environmental scientists for the agency, said courts have determined that dredge spoils that are resuspended after being removed from the beds of rivers do constitute pollution even if they come from the water body they are discharged into.

“The Clean Water Act is very clear that sand and gravel should be one of the pollutants. If they discharge those it is regulated by the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System,” Werntz said.

Mark MacIntyre, a spokesman for the EPA at Seattle, said the agency wouldn’t speculate on a response if miners operate dredges during the protest.

Earlier this year, the Idaho Legislature entertained a bill by Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, that would have nullified EPA regulations in the state. The bill, brought with the concern of suction dredge miners in mind, failed because of constitutional concerns.

Although only 50 or so miners have committed to attend, Crossman said he would like to have as many as 1,000 people there. He hasn’t picked a spot but is thinking about Island Bar and Shorts Bar, camping and recreation sites operated by the Bureau of Land Management near Riggins.

Chmelik and the rest of the Idaho County Commission sent a letter to the BLM Cottonwood Field Office last week asking Field Manager Will Runnoe to help the group plan the protest. “The parties involved wish to respectfully exercise their right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

“They have informed us they will be respectful and orderly in this event and are seeking guidance from the BLM for a successful event,” they wrote.

Runnoe is out of the office this week but Robin Boyce, acting field manager, said the agency is working on a response.

“We are still trying to figure out how this would work and when and if it is possible on BLM property,” he said.

Chmelik said the agency’s cooperation would send a positive message.

“I think the BLM has a golden opportunity after what happened in Nevada to try to work with these people,” Chmelik said. “It’s not the BLM they are mad at. They are upset at the EPA.”

Last week the BLM abandoned the roundup of cattle in Clark County, Nevada, owned by rancher Cliven Bundy, who has refused to pay grazing fees in a long-running battle with the agency. The abandonment occurred after a tense standoff with armed protesters, many of whom identified themselves as militia members.

Crossman said that is not the sort of thing he envisions for the dredge protest.

“It’s a civil protest,” he said. “This is nonviolent. We do not want another Bundy Ranch.”

But he does hope for a big showing that will impress elected officials.

“We want our state legislators to understand we are not against laws and rules but when they are out of control and tyrannical, there is an issue,” Crossman said.

(c)2014 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

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