Gold Vs. Fish: Groups Threaten To Sue Wash. State Over Suction Dredge Mining

Jan 11, 2017

A controversial recreational activity called “suction dredge mining” has led to moratoriums on the practice in California and Oregon. But Washington continues to allow it. Conservation groups have now threatened to sue the state unless new regulations are passed.

Suction dredge miners use floating gas-powered vacuums to suck up gravel on the bottom of rivers and streams in search of gold flakes. Conservation groups say it’s destroying habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead.

In Washington, the only permit required is a pamphlet that miners are supposed to print from a website.  And there’s no way to track or enforce regulations on the activity, says Gabriel Scott, staff attorney with Cascadia Wildlands, one of the groups threatening to sue.  

“The nature of suction dredge mining is to vacuum up the stream bed. And that completely devastates the stream bed environment,” Scott said.  

“So, that can’t be happening at the same times and places where there is endangered salmon or other endangered species.”

He says new regulations are needed now more than ever; the crackdown in other states has caused a mini-gold rush here with thousands of hobby miners flocking to Washington’s waterways in recent years. Jonathan Evans, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, the co-plaintiff in the complaint, says the lax state regulations are leading to routine violations of federal laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

“And we’re just seeing that have detrimental impacts on Washington’s imperiled salmon and on water quality and on important cultural resources,” Evans said.

But the groups say their lawsuit could be averted if the state legislature acts. Bills were introduced this week, to better enforce federal protections.

A spokesman for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife said via email that the agency will review the complaint with the state’s attorneys as soon as possible. He said they would also talk with the groups about any options that would avert a suit.