Palumbo sponsors bill seeking to protect endangered fish, rivers from toxic suction dredge mining

Washington does not have regulations for recreational miners who use motorized equipment in search of gold.

Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-Maltby) has worked on several sustainability-focused bills this year as vice chair of the Environment, Energy and Technology committee, including clean fuels, solar power, electric vehicles and more. One of his bills moving through the Legislature would protect fish and rivers from suction dredge mining.

Washington state does not have regulations for recreational miners who use motorized equipment and are able “go out and vacuum up the floor of the river” in search of gold. Palumbo said that this practice is bad for fish habitat, and his bill would prohibit it in Endangered Species Act classified critical habitats — a ban that is already in place in other states on the West Coast.

“Right now, in a given biennium, we spend a minimum of $222 million on the salmon recovery board and fish habitat… and we’re letting people go around suction dredge mining and ruining that work. With orcas dying and chinook endangered, it doesn’t make sense,” Palumbo said.

The bill, SB 5322, would help bring Washington into compliance with state and federal laws protecting fish and water quality, including the Clean Water Act. It would also create rules limiting what environmentalists call a “destructive” mining practice, which are similar to measures already in place in California, Oregon and Idaho.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the gas-powered dredges that suck up the bottom of riverbeds and streambeds suspend heavy metals and other sediments in the water, putting endangered fish and their habitat in peril. It “destroys important habitat for endangered fish and increases oxygen-choking sediment and toxic mercury in waterways,” according to a press release from the center.

“It’s time to end the destructive suction dredge free-for-all in our waterways,” Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in the press release. “Washington taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to restore salmon habitat, but we still allow a small group of hobby miners to trash critical spawning areas. Creating reasonable measures to regulate this harmful practice is an essential step for protecting our endangered salmon and orca populations.”

Washington does not currently require water-quality permits or fees for the practice, and there is no monitoring or tracking of suction dredge mining, and is the only state with endangered Pacific salmon and whales to allow suction dredge mining without meaningful regulatory oversight. The bill seeks to protect water quality and wildlife, while continuing to allow recreational mining on other waterways with a permit.

Palumbo said that miners will still be allowed to use non-motorized methods, such as panning for gold, in critical areas.

SB 5322 passed the Senate with a 30-17 vote on March 4, and had a hearing in the House on March 14. The bill was opposed by some small scale prospectors and concerned citizens, but received support from about 80 groups around the state, including the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited.

“The bill is not a ban, or a statewide ban, on recreational mining,” Bill Clarke from Trout Unlimited said at the hearing. “The entire state remains open to recreational mining. It’s a limitation on a method of mining in critical habitat.”

Palumbo will host a town hall meeting March 23, with his 1st District seatmates, Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, and Rep. Shelly Kloba, D-Kirkland.

The meeting will provide a forum for constituents to hear updates on the 2019 legislative session and toask questions of their lawmakers.

The meeting is scheduled for 1:30-3 p.m. at Mobius Hall at Cascadia Community College, 18345 Campus Way NE in Bothell.

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