Chuck Wilson and Kim McDonald share a love of outdoor recreation and nature. But they’re on opposite sides when it comes to suction dredge mining.

Wilson, president of the Washington Prospectors Mining Association, said he first started panning for gold at age 3. His prospecting has since expanded to include suction dredge mining, with the Sultan River in Snohomish County a favorite spot.

McDonald also fell in love with being outdoors in waterways at an early age, with a particular passion for fly-fishing in the Peshastin area. An ecologist and forester, she still combs the waterways but now also notes the negative impacts of those not following the rules.

Suction dredge mining is a motorized prospecting method that uses a high-pressure gasoline-powered water pump to vacuum up rocks, gravel and sediment from the bottom of rivers and creeks. The material is filtered through the machine and back into the river in a process that helps separate out minerals, such as gold or jade.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife restricts suction dredge mining in waterways during certain times of the year, including when fish are spawning, as the dredges can kill young fish and eggs and otherwise disturb spawning grounds.

Two bills that passed through the first cut-off period in this year’s legislative session focus on ensuring compliance with the federal Clean Water Act by prohibiting certain discharges into waterways of the state.

They ask that suction dredge mining be prohibited at all times in critical habitat areas. The bills would allow other prospecting methods, such as sluicing, within the areas and also would allow suction dredge mining in waterways outside of the critical habitat areas, as long as prospectors follow state regulations. The bills complement the governor’s larger legislative push to protect salmon and the state’s struggling orca populations.

The Washington State House of Representatives voted to approve the legislation Wednesday with a 60-35 vote.

Environmentalists and prospecting groups have been debating the impacts of suction dredge mining for years, leaving trails of legislative reform attempts and civil lawsuits.

Prospectors said that existing regulations are both robust and restrictive enough to ensure fish health and safety without new legislation. They also say there are areas designated as non-habitat that are within critical habitat areas that should remain open to miners. Those in support of the bills — including more than 160 conservation, recreation, wildlife and regulatory agencies — said the changes would impact a fraction of the state’s waterways while making a huge difference for fish.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife gives approval to prospecting projects and monitors prospecting activity. Spokeswoman Rachel Blomker said the agency supports the bills.

“We support both the companion bills being considered by the Legislature right now because we have heard the Legislature wants a more direct evaluation of the water quality effects of these activities,” she said.

Gold and Fish

The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Gold and Fish” pamphlet outlines rules for prospectors, including that the activity must not disturb fish or redds, spots where fish lay eggs. Prospectors also cannot expose roots of woody vegetation and must operate their machines so that petroleum doesn’t enter waterways. The pamphlet also identifies times when prospecting is prohibited in individual waterways to protect fish.

Wilson said those requirements are sufficient.

“Three-quarters of the pamphlet is tables about when you can and can’t go into the streams, and that is the epitome of caring for fish,” he said. “We all agreed with it. It’s a very well-written document.”

In June 2019, Fish and Wildlife announced mineral prospectors would need to get individual hydraulic project approval to suction dredge mine in Washington, effective Nov. 1. In November, the state agency also received authority to take enforcement actions and conduct criminal and civil investigations about compliance.

McDonald noted that unregulated or improper use of suction dredge mining can cause erosion, sedimentation, habitat destruction, increased water temperatures and decreased water quality — all of which can prove fatal to fish. She added that habitat not restored properly after prospecting activity can force fish into holes where they’ll get stuck or become vulnerable to predators. She said proponents of the legislation are asking for a small sacrifice on behalf of the prospectors.

“Everyone is making sacrifices in Washington, from rates paid to public utilities to irrigators who tamp down on their water usage,” McDonald said. “Every single thing matters when you’re dealing with these fairly fragile ecosystems and are trying to bring back these species.”

The letter from the conservation and recreational groups submitted to legislators said the bills would help protect populations of Endangered Species Act-listed Pacific Salmon and steelhead, as well as chinook salmon, the primary source of food for the state’s southern resident killer whale population.

Wilson said prospectors help clean roadways, pick up trash and litter near their sites, and also remove harmful substances, including mercury, nails, and lead, from waterways. He also said the machines don’t hurt fish.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about the equipment we use, including that the dredge has blades inside that chop up fish,” he said. “That’s not true. I’ve been in a river where fish come up to the tube, go through, then come back and go through again. They think it’s Disneyland.”

Blomker said Yakima County has never been a hotspot for mining due to its geology. Most suction dredging in Yakima County happens in the upper Naches River Basin and its associated tributaries, including the Little Naches River, American River and Morse Creek, she said. Changes authorized last year will require suction dredge miners to start submitting an annual report of their dredge mining activities to state regulatory agencies starting in 2021, Blomker said.

Is legislative solution needed?

Ellensburg resident Derek Young, who recently retired from a 10-year career as a fly-fishing guide, said he also has witnessed negative impacts from suction dredge miners who didn’t comply with fish protection provisions.

Young said he’s taken photos of a dredge left unattended in a waterway for more than 48 hours. He’s also seen dredges become unanchored and float downstream from their owners.

“The state and federal government have spent millions of dollars to restore these habitats,” he said. “In one hour, a suction dredge can erase decades of work.”

Wilson contested the claims that the dredge mine was abandoned, given that a suction dredge costs about $6,000. Wilson also said his association holds prospectors to high standards. He said he will kick out club members who don’t follow the rules.

“We’re that brutal when it comes to self-discipline,” he said. “Within our organization, we try very hard to educate our members. We very much believe we are stewards of the environment where we work.”

Proponents of the bills said that Washington is the only state with endangered salmon and steelhead that still allows suction dredge mining without permits or regulatory oversight. Proponents said that Oregon, California and Idaho passed similar bills, which they said has displaced miners to Washington to further tax the state’s streams.

Pat Hesselgesser, the conservation chairwoman of the Yakima Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said that careless actions of noncompliant miners counter the intensive efforts around the state to improve aquatic conditions.

“All the hard work we are doing in the Central Cascades and across the state is being undermined by inadequate regulation of suction dredge mining,” she said. “Now is the time for addressing this issue head-on, and instituting meaningful legal reforms to improve protections.”

Prospectors have contested that further legislation is needed. They said during 2017 testimony to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee that miners are not the ones polluting or hurting fish and that prospectors actually help the environment.

Miner William Brown said dredging doesn’t add anything to the water, and in fact, miners remove mercury from past mining activities.

“I’ve been involved with doing this now for five years continuously and in the five years I’ve been with this we have noticed not one fish kill,” he said.

Miner Bruce Beatty of University Place said miners at the 2017 hearing were all professionals operating mostly in the national forest and Bureau of Land management land under the 1872 mining law.

“It seems like every year we have to defend the business of prospecting and mining. For me it’s 17 years in a row,” he said.

Wilson said that Washington prospectors have continually been a target by conservation groups, despite what he said are already adequate regulations.

“Every time we share the facts in legislative session, the bills end up getting killed,” he said. “We all care about the fish and about nature. We have walked these waterways to get our permits. The state has done a lot of work to figure this out.”

Young said reform efforts, including a similar bill that failed to pass last year, have met with pushback from legislators who are prospectors themselves.

“It is a very powerful group of people who have connections at the highest level,” he said. “But as these bills have raised awareness, people are starting to see the importance and the impact.”

Ten tribal nations, including the Yakama Nation and the Snoqualmie Tribe, support the bill.