By SARAH REIJONEN
For the GPAA
Article as featured in the June/July 2015 Pick & Shovel Gazette.
Small-scale suction dredgers will gather in Idaho for the sequel to last years Occupy Idaho Waters Rally. Occupy Idaho Waters II: Rumble on the River will host miners who want to show solidarity and stand up to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has threatened small-scale suction dredging in the state of Idaho.
The event lasts from July 3 through 12, but the rally will take place at 2 p.m. on July 5 in Crouch, Idaho.
“We’re trying to get as many prospectors together in one spot as we can to promote the legal dredging of a section of river set aside by the state of Idaho,” said Southwest Idaho Mining Association (SWIMA) Vice President Jim Hamilton.
Rumblings in Idaho began in 2012 when EPA’s Region 10 office informed Idaho prospectors that dredging violated the Clean Water Act. Following that statement, the EPA presented miners with a general permit and said they would need to get in order to dredge.
“We’re pretty sure the reason for the NPDES permit is not so much to protect the water, as it is to keep the miners out of the water,” Hamilton said. “When you look at the waters that are open—according to the EPA—and you take that map and you overlay it on top of the waters that are open to dredging according to the state of Idaho, it’s an exact negative. It’s completely impossible to have both permits at the same time in the exact same section of water, which in essence nullifies dredging in the state of Idaho without any laws or running anything through Congress.”
Since then, Rep. Paul Shepherd-R has presented various bills to block EPA regulations and allow small-scale suction dredgers to enter the water without the threat of steep fines from the federal agency. Other state and county representatives have also stepped up, including Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik.
“I think they have rights to mine on the river and the EPA is really getting out of hand and nobody was really standing up for them,” said Chmelik, who spends most of his time working on land rights issues. “It’s supposed to be a country of laws, not of men, and these guys are making up the laws as they go along—this stuff is getting old.”
While some miners applied for the general permit—the EPA denied 50 percent of the permits applied for in 2013—actually obtaining one not only seemed futile, but irrelevant, Hamilton said.
“They’re trying to permit dredges as a point-source discharge of pollution, but the Supreme Court ruled that moving water from one point to another in the same water stream is not a point source of pollution, because you’re not adding anything or removing anything out of the water,” Hamilton said.
Instead of giving in and giving up, Idaho miners began contacting their representatives, Hamilton said.
“They were very interested to hear about this and they were on board from the get-go,” Hamilton said.
In fact, Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik was the one who put the occupy bug in the miners’ ears, Chmelik said.
“How this whole thing came about is somebody was asking me, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘They have Occupy Wall Street, why don’t you guys go out and occupy the river?’ I don’t have time to coordinate it, but I’ll support you guys,” Chmelik said. “I went to the BLM and said, ‘Look, I don’t want Bundy Ranch here, I don’t want Bunker Hill, Nevada here in Idaho. All you got to do is stand down, let them have their day.”
Chmelik spoke at last year’s rally and will speak again at this year’s rally on July 5.
“They showed up last year, they gave a speech at the rally, and (Chmelik) also came out and we got him to try dredging to see what it is we did,” Hamilton said. “The county sheriff (Doug Giddings) was also present the entire time and 100 percent behind us. He wanted to make sure we weren’t going to be harassed.”
Instead of finding that dredging was harmful to the environment, Chmelik found the opposite. Not only did he say that miners left the river cleaner than they found it, but he also unearthed a heap of admiration for miners.
“I think you people are crazy, that’s what I think,” Chmelik said. “I’m really glad I did it, because it’s not something I want to go do, but I have a totally newfound respect for what it means to be down in seven, eight, nine feet of water to do that. That is a lot of work and an admirable way to try to make a living.”
Aside from support from state and county representatives, Hamilton said miners once again have a stamp of approval from the local sheriff.
“The county sheriff has already stated very clearly that he is 100 percent behind us in the same manner that Sheriff Giddings was behind us last year,” Hamilton said.
This year’s event will be held in Boise County instead of Idaho County for a change of scenery.
“At last year’s event, we were all centralized on one large bar on the Salmon River. This year we’re kind of going for the opposite; we are trying to spread miners up and down both forks on a segment of the Payette River to try to fill up the river completely,” Hamilton said. “It’s a very heavily used river for other recreational activities: kayaking, rafting, fishing—we want all of those people to see that there are a lot of miners out there and these laws are going to affect more than just them.”
Ultimately, Hamilton said SWIMA wants other recreationalists to understand that this is only the beginning, as far as regulating uses on public lands goes.
“We’re kind of a litmus test for getting people off the public land, from what I’ve been seeing,” Hamilton said.
This year’s new location on the Payette River gives miners the opportunity to not only spread out, but “spread the wealth” throughout the state, Hamilton said.
“We kind of want to take each county in the state of Idaho as we continue doing this so we can kind of spread the wealth,” Hamilton said. “We’re not accepting donations or funds or anything; we’re doing this all out of our own pocket, because we want to continue to dredge in the state of Idaho and we want to show all the communities that we’re not doing any damage.”
In fact, at the end of the rally, miners will gather all the trash they collected through the week to show the positive impact small-scale suction dredging has on the environment.
“Instead of putting trash in, we’ve brought it all out, and the trash is very clearly not from us,” Hamilton said. “From sunglasses and beer cans and raft oars to tires, inner tubes—it’s all stuff that’s not really good for he environment.”
Though the event is essentially a protest, Hamilton said SWIMA’s intentions are to keep the rally peaceful and family friendly.
“My family will be there. Everybody I know that has a family will be bringing them,” Hamilton said. “There will be a lot of kids there, and there’s a lot of recreational activities, so I know some of the families will be going rafting. There are also ATV trails.”
While there will be many dredgers in the water, there will also be prospecting activities for children.
“What I really noticed (last year) is that it seemed to be a family event. You don’t see families doing a whole lot of things together. The kids were there, the kids were into it; they were doing panning on the shoreline. Like I said, it was refreshing to see,” Chmelik said. The family can also enjoy the annual Fourth of July fireworks show put on by the community of Crouch.
“Crouch does do a very large fireworks show put on by the citizens. It’s not a professional fireworks show, but it is quite impressive. It’s a town of 400 that balloons up to between one and two thousand,” Hamilton said. “It’s also very family friendly. We look forward to seeing everybody out there.”
While some miners were fearful to attend last year’s event, Hamilton said there is nothing to fear, as the event is completely legal as long as small-scale suction dredgers obtain an Idaho Department of Water Resources permit for dredging. The permit is $10 for Idaho residents and $30 for non-residents. That is the only cost for the event.
“It is 100 percent legal as long as they have their permit. We can’t promote breaking the law,” Hamilton said. “The EPA would consider us violating a regulation, but only Congress can create laws, and this has not been approved by Congress.”
Aside from a few letters threatening steep fines, last year’s event did not draw any special from the EPA, Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, Hamilton said.
“There were a few people that got kind of a generic letter saying ‘you may have been planning in the river or you may have dredged so you might be responsible for a $37,500 a day fine for Clean Water Act violation,’ but there were a whole lot of maybes, coulda, shoulda’s,” Hamilton said. “Sheriff Giddings had contacted the EPA and Forest Service to let them know what we were doing and that he would also be there to make sure that all the laws were followed, which I think was a big deterrent.”
While Hamilton said he believes the EPA is fundamentally wrong in trying to permit small-scale suction dredgers, Chmelik said miners also have the Constitution in their corner.
“We have the law on our side,” Chmelik said. “I don’t want anybody to break the law either, but at the same time, you have the First Amendment right to peaceful assemble against your government for the redress of grievances, and that’s what I told them they need to do.”
Ultimately, the main purpose of the rally is to get dredgers back in the water and remind them that they have the right to be in Idaho rivers.
“The primary thing we’re trying to promote is that this is completely legal, because the EPA has scared a lot of dredgers out of the water,” Hamilton said. “It’s kind of hard to risk a $37,000 a day fine when there’s a lot of us that barely make that in a year.”
As far as Hamilton is concerned, the claim that dredging pollutes rivers doesn’t make any sense. For small-scale suction dredge miners, polluting the rivers means putting their own well being at risk.
“An example of a point-source discharge is a culvert going into a creek, field runoff, storm runoff—those are all point-source discharges. Those should be monitored. You don’t want people dumping oil and stuff like that that goes into the river,” Hamilton said. “We spend all day, literally, under water in the river—the last thing we want to do is be in a polluted cesspool.”
Advocacy groups such as the American Mining Rights Association will attend the event, AMRA President Shannon Poe said recently.
OCCUPY IDAHO WATERS II: RUMBLE ON THE RIVER
WHAT: Occupy Idaho Waters II: Rumble on the River
WHO: Southwest Idaho Mining Association
WHERE: Payette River in Crouch, Idaho (Camping available in Crouch and Garden Valley, Idaho)
WHEN: July 3 through July 12 with a rally at 2 p.m. on July 5
WHY: Celebrate Independence Day by exercising your right to suction dredge in Idaho and protesting government overreach.
HOW: For more information, contact John Crossman at (208) 871-8449 or email email@example.com.
Sarah Reijonen is a freelance writer based in California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brad Jones is the Managing Editor/Communications Director for the Gold Prospectors Association of America and the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association. He can be reached at email@example.com
South West Idaho Mining Association President John Crossman and fellow miner Robert Combs prep their small-scale suction dredge at the Occupy Idaho Waters event along the Salmon River near Riggins, Idaho, in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Jim Hamilton