While California and Oregon have banned some suction-dredge mining techniques, known to alter river flows, reduce water quality and harm recovering fish populations, Washington waterways have suffered from increased mining pressures. It’s time to stop the environmental damage.
IN a rush of crystal-clear water tumbling across boulders and logs before spilling into quiet pebble-bedded pools, Peshastin Creek is a classic North Cascades waterway that has long been home to steelhead and bull trout.
So when the pristine tributary of the Wenatchee River was hit by unusually low flows and spiking temperatures back in August 2015, it made perfect sense that state regulators moved quickly to dramatically curtail fishing for all species.
But that restriction was followed by an illogical regulatory lapse that fully displayed the state’s broad tolerance of destructive suction-dredge mining. Recreational gold-miners would still be allowed to vacuum up the creek’s delicate stream beds then spew the spoils back into the creek, clouding waters with oxygen-starving sediment, stirring up toxic mercury tailings and further raising water temperatures.
Weeks later when regulators finally decided to limit the extreme mining technique, it was still allowed, but only up until 2 p.m. every day.
As California and Oregon have stepped up in recent years and banned suction-dredge mining techniques long known to alter river flows, reduce water quality and harm fragile, recovering fish populations, Washington waterways have suffered from increased mining pressures.
Yet, state regulators here have taken only cursory steps, creating a virtual mining free-for-all on state waters. With few restrictions and little or no oversight, Washington officials have no clear idea of how many hobby gold-miners are suction-dredging, where it’s occurring or how badly it’s damaging waterways.
As a result, state officials have failed in their legal responsibility to meet the very clear requirements of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act to protect water quality and the nation’s most imperiled plants and animals. In an effort to spur Washington to meet those obligations, the conservation group where I work, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Cascadia Wildlands filed a notice of intent to sue the state on Jan. 10.
Two bills now being considered by Washington legislators offer an important opportunity to begin to fix those oversights. HB 1077, introduced by state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, would create important safeguards in environmentally sensitive areas to protect salmon and water quality. HB 1106, introduced by Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, would require miners to comply with the Clean Water Act to reduce pollution when mining.
At a recent House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the two bills suction-dredge miners made it clear that, just as in California and Oregon, they aren’t about to concede the issue without a fight.
The need for improvement in Washington can’t be overstated: To this point, even state restrictions put in place to limit suction dredging during spawning and hatching seasons are routinely sidestepped. Virtually all of the hundreds of requests from miners for exceptions to the common-sense seasonal mining limitations to protect fish eggs and fingerlings have been approved.
The harm caused by this destructive dredging process is well-documented. Cobbles and boulders too large for processing are often dumped alongside the excavated hole or on the bank. The smaller cobbles, gravel and sands are then dumped back into the river, altering stream hydrology, destroying important fish egg-laying habitat and clouding the water.
Worse still, the mining process can re-expose previously buried mercury tailings from historic mining operations. Hobby miners dredge up historically buried mercury causing it to “flour” into a much smaller and more reactive form of the heavy metal that is now swept downstream, contaminating aquatic and terrestrial food webs.
It must stop.
Like the arteries stretching across the human brain, Washington’s remarkable web of waterways serves as a life-giving circulatory system critical to the state’s long-term environmental and economic health.
It’s time for legislators to protect our state’s true sparkling gems — the irreplaceable waterways critical to salmon and wildlife and treasured, not just by one special interest group, but by all of our communities.