EPA finalizes dredge permits in Idaho
5/10/2013 9:03 AM
By SARAH REIJONEN
For the GPAA
The Environmental Protection Agency released a draft permit drawing up regulations for small-scale suction dredgers in Idaho approximately one year ago.
Then, in early April the EPA released its finalized permit, requiring dredgers to apply for the organization’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The permit covers small-scale suction dredgers operating “intake nozzles five inches in diameter or less and engines rated at 15 horsepower or less.” This requirement is no different than what the Idaho Department of Water Resources currently asks of dredgers; however, the state and federal permits do part ways in other areas.
“Making permits doesn’t do anything except create more legal hassles,” said Gold Prospectors Association of America member Jim Young, who lives in Biloxi, Miss. but owns a mining claim in Idaho. “I don’t see anything positive for miners or prospectors. Most of us are in compliance anyways as far as the water quality. There’s already regulations and the reality is when you’re running a dredge you aren’t putting anything in the water that wasn’t in there to start with.”
According to the EPA, the NPDES permit will keep dredgers in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The EPA permit is in addition to the IDWR letter permit, which is already required for dredging. Idaho residents pay $10 for their letter permit while non-residents pay $30. There is no fee for the EPA general permit.
“This is redundancy because the state already has all their regulations,” Young said. “Then the federal government comes in and all they’re doing is creating complications. I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m not in favor of any permits like that.”
One key difference between the state permit and the EPA permit is the amount of space required between dredging operations. The IDWR permit allows one mining site per 100 feet of linear stream channel. The EPA permit calls for 800 feet between dredging operations.
Another concern is enforcement; the EPA claims to take full responsibility for making sure dredgers adhere to the Clean Water Act.
“EPA’s primary objective is compliance rather than enforcement,” according to EPA Region 10 NPDES Permit Writer Cindi Godsey and EPA Scientist Tracy DeGering, who wrote responses to each comment from the public regarding the original draft permit. After releasing the draft permit in May, the EPA held an open comment period in June 2012 and addressed concerns from members of the dredging community and non-dredging communities alike. “The goal in issuing a permit is for permittees to achieve compliance with the requirements of the permit to maintain the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the waters.”
But, EPA enforcement spells out big bucks and includes a fine of nearly $40,000 per day per violation.
“If a person discharges pollutants such as sediment into waters of the U.S. without an NPDES permit, EPA can pursue an enforcement action that may include penalties of up to $37,500 per day per violation,” according to EPA Senior Communications Officer Mark McIntyre. “The type of enforcement action largely depends on the gravity of the violation.”
This is in comparison to the IDWR violation penalty, which is set at no less than $150, but no more than $500 along with the revocation of the dredgers state permit.
One of the biggest discrepancies between the EPA and the mining community is the idea that dredges add pollutants to the waterways. The EPA holds to its belief that an “NPDES permit is required because the small suction dredge activities discharge pollutants to waters of the United States.” The EPA’s response notes that “the term ‘pollutant’ is broadly defined” to include everything from radioactive material and sewage to sand and dirt.
“In Idaho, the EPA has determined that the suction dredge is adding a pollutant,” said Public Lands for the People President Jerry Hobbs. “There’s two Supreme Court rulings that say that’s not true.”
According to one of the responses addressed during the comment period, the EPA believes that “the CWA (Clean Water Act) does not say that only discharges having an impact need a permit. It says that the discharge itself is unlawful without the permit. The CWA does not contain any provision for smaller discharges or those with less impact to be treated as de minimis with no permit requirement.”
Per the EPA’s general permit, miners must also file a Notice of Intent (NOI) 60 days before beginning to dredge.
“By submitting an NOI, the permittee is seeking authorization to discharge pollutants to waters of the U.S. which is required under the CWA,” according to another response written by Godsey and DeGering. “If the facility fails to obtain permit coverage through submittal of the NOI, the facility may be subject to an enforcement action for discharging without a permit.”
While the EPA seemed hopeful last May and said the permitting process would “open rivers” and allow dredgers to operate legally as far as the Clean Water Act of the EPA is concerned, the organization declined to respond with specificity concerning feedback from the public this time around.
“The responses have varied,” McIntyre said. “We would prefer you speak directly with the group you were interested in hearing from, rather than speculate on how they might feel.”
The 40-page document of responses reflects the views of many miners in the state of Idaho and it’s not too different from what Young expressed.
“It’s just another hurdle here,” Young said. “We’re getting permits on top of permits on top of permits. This is ridiculous.”
ON THE ’NET
- To view the full 40-page document of comments received by the Idaho EPA, visit: http://www.epa.gov/region10/pdf/permits/npdes/id/small_suction_dredge_idg370000_rtc.pdf.
- For information about acquiring a permit through the Idaho Department of Water Resources, visit: www.idwr.idaho.gov.
- For more information regarding the Environmental Protection Agency General Permit, visit: http://yosemite.epa.gov/r10/water.nsf/npdes+permits/idsuction-gp.
Miners battle U.S. Forest Service over claims
Jim Young, an Idaho claim holder from Buloxi, Miss. and president of the South Mississippi Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America is not only concerned with the new EPA permit, but he also continues to battle the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho.
In August 2012, the Forest Service notified claim holders along the North Fork of Idaho’s Clearwater River that they would be confiscating their mining claims. This came after some claim holders allegedly posted “No trespassing” signs and also after the original claim holder had parceled and sold his claim for more than it was worth. While the original claim holder is not a part of the mining community and does not claim responsibility, the miners who bought claims, including Young, are fighting to save their investments.
Young and a few fellow claim holders came together in January to plead their case with the Department of Interior. Once both parties, the prospectors and Forest Service, finish their briefs and have made their rebuttals to one another, the judge will have 30 days to make a final decision. Both parties expect a verdict by the summer.
Sarah Reijonen is a GPAA member and freelance writer based in California.