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Gold Vs. Fish: Proposed Bill To Regulate, Study Suction Dredge Mining In Wash.

Jeff Barnard
AP Photo
FILE - In this file photo, a man works a suction dredge to hunt for gold in the Klamath River near Happy Camp, Calif.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story quoted Rep. Gael Tarleton, who said, "Oregon has a moratorium" on suction dredge mining. She also said, "The state of Idaho has banned suction dredging under the Clean Water Act." The state of Oregon does not have a moratorium though it does restrict the practice, and the state of Idaho has banned the practice only in some waters, including all areas designated as critical habitat for endangered salmon. 

Washington is the only state left in the Pacific Northwest where people mining for gold and other minerals are allowed unrestricted use of motorized vacuums in riverbeds.

The practice is known as suction dredge mining, and some are concerned it’s harmful to endangered fish. A bill before the legislature would place new restrictions on it while its impacts are studied.

Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, is the prime sponsor of the legislation. It directs the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to create a work group to study the effects of motorized mineral prospecting on native fish and their habitat.

Tarleton told a packed house committee that Washington lags behind its neighbors in addressing the issue.

Currently, small-scale prospectors are not regulated and charged no fees for suction dredge mining in Washington; they’re only required to follow guidelines published by the state in a Gold and Fish pamphlet and face fees for violations.

Tarleton’s bill would instead temporarily require them to apply for permits and pay an $150 application fee. They would be tracked till the work group presents its findings in October 2016. The bill would also temporarily ban motorized mineral prospecting from rivers where fishing is prohibited.

Rosendo Guerrero, chairman of the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited, was among many conservationist groupsurging the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee to pass the bill. He said it was of particular concern for endangered species of salmon and steelhead.

“Hundreds of millions of tax dollars are spent on habitat restoration projects in Washington state, and we need to be monitoring all of the in-stream activities to ensure investment is protected,” he said. 

Critics are concerned suction dredge mining can damage spawning grounds and cause egg mortality, turbidity and other conditions that can kill young salmonids or affect the insects they feed on. 

Also testifying at the hearing were dozens of hobby miners and property rights activists. They told the committee new regulations would be expensive and unnecessary.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to