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Hunt for gold in Washington’s waterways dredges up conflict

January 25, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
Gold fever is alive in the mountains of Washington state, but the use of new machinery in waterways is causing conflict with activists. Local fishermen are pushing for regulations on hydraulic dredging, a method that boosts the efficacy of small-scale mining operations but may cause lasting damage to fish populations in the area. Special correspondent Nils Cowan of KCTS reports.


It’s been more than 150 years since the start of the California gold rush. Though dreams of striking it rich may have faded for many, small-scale gold mining still exists today. One method of dredging for gold in streams is at the center of a growing debate that has both miners and environmentalists calling for immediate action, especially in Washington state where the controversy has reached a fever pitch.

It’s called suction dredging: miners use scuba gear and a high powered vacuum to strip away the bottom of a stream and run the sediment through a riffle box, which separates the elements, and allows gold — which is the heaviest mineral in the stream — to fall to the bottom of the container.

Environmentalists and anglers are trying to end the practice, arguing it damages streams and their related ecosystems. Some states are so concerned about the environmental impact from the dredging that they have restricted the practice — leaving Washington state as one of only a few that still allow it.

Miners contend there are enough restrictions on suction dredging and that they too are concerned about the environment. Caught in the middle is the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is responsible for enforcing the laws and is sympathetic to miners, but is also concerned about potential environmental damage.

Read the full story from EarthFix.

Read the full transcript of this segment below:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: It’s been more than 150 years since the start of the California gold rush. Though dreams of striking it rich may have faded for many, there are still some in the U.S. hoping to strike it rich in streams and creeks.

One method of mining for gold is at the center of a growing debate between miners and environmentalists. In Washington state, the controversy has reached a fever pitch.

Correspondent Nils Cowan from member station KCTS in Seattle and EarthFix, a public media partnership, reports.

NILS COWAN: In the rugged mountain wilderness of Washington state, a unique group of enthusiasts is carrying on an age-old tradition.

MAN: We’re probably going to put the dredge right here.

MAN: Right in that area, OK.

NILS COWAN: They’re searching for gold.

RON LARSON, Gold Miner: Gold has always had an allure for man, and man has always chased it.

NILS COWAN: For modern small-scale miners like Ron Larson, the most effective tool is a fairly new invention known as the hydraulic dredge.

MAN: Locked and loaded.

RON LARSON: A hydraulic dredge is essentially a floating platform with a power plant that supplies air and power to move water over a riffle box to sort out the heavy material. Gold is heavier than every other mineral in the stream, and the only way to get the gold is to remove what is called overburden.

NILS COWAN: To strip away this layer of rock and sediment, miners are equipped with diving gear and a high-powered underwater vacuum. Also known as suction dredging, this method allows miners to go through as much as 40 times more sediment than non-motorized mining.

But growing concern over possible environmental impacts has caused lawmakers in California, Oregon and Idaho to take action to restrict it. That leaves Washington as one of just a few Western states to allow dredging in most of its waterways, setting up a key battle between small-scale gold miners…

MAN: There’s a dredge right over here.

WOMAN: Oh yes.

NILS COWAN: … and the activists looking to shut them down.

In Central Washington, a team of fish enthusiasts and environmental activists is heading into prime dredging territory. They’re looking for evidence of how this mining method impacts fish.

WOMAN: Wow. Are you kidding?

GREGG BAFUNDO, Field Coordinator, Trout Unlimited: They have altered the channel of the water, so that they can bring it into their sluice.

NILS COWAN: Gregg Bafundo is the Washington field coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

GREGG BAFUNDO: We’re here, and we’re fisherman, and we’re concerned. We have been seeing waters getting warmer. We have been seeing droughts across the West that have been impacting fish. And right now, we have steelhead that are trying to get upstream to spawn, and they can’t.

I’m looking at this, and I’m seeing some pretty good blockages.

And one of the reasons they can’t is, there’s dams. There’s holes that are trapping the fish.

I mean, this is — you know, that looks like a bomb went off in that thing.

NILS COWAN: Farther upstream, Bafundo and restoration ecologist Crystal Elliot-Perez check for impacts to water quality just below a dredging operation.

CRYSTAL ELLIOT-PEREZ, Restoration Ecologist, Trout Unlimited: When you run sediment through a sluice, and then you get a sediment plume coming out the back end, that impacts turbidity or increases turbidity.

NILS COWAN: Excess sediment makes it difficult for fish to breathe and can cause water temperatures to rise to harmful levels.

CRYSTAL ELLIOT-PEREZ: Remember what it was back there?

WOMAN: Two-point-seven?



WOMAN: Are you kidding?

NILS COWAN: Four times higher than farther downstream, not enough to kill fish, but they are more concerned about the overall impacts dredging could be having, impacts that currently aren’t being measured.

Washington was among the first states to publish rules for small-scale mining in 1980. Current regulations don’t allow dredging during spawning seasons, and place restrictions on where in the stream miners can operate, how large their motors and hoses can be, and how close together they can dredge.

But permits, which are free, are required only for projects that don’t fall within these rules. This means that the state isn’t tracking where or when dredging is taking place. That’s a problem for Mark Johnson, a fish biologist with the Yakama Nation.

He says suction dredging can have a negative impact on fish-spawning habitat.

MARK JOHNSON, Biologist, Yakama Nation Fisheries: When you get up in the isolated areas, people tend not to follow those rules. They will get into areas where it’s smaller, coarse gravel, and that’s typically where fish like to spawn. They dig their nests or their reds in the ground, lay their eggs and then they die.

NILS COWAN: The nutrients from these dead fish build the food web for the next generation. Miners say that current regulations are restrictive enough.

RON LARSON: If you are caught out here, you will get fined, and some of them are pretty stiff fines, up to $5,000 if you’re not following the provisions.

NILS COWAN: They contend their activities clear the streams of trash and debris, and have little to no impact on fish.

RON LARSON: A great many of the prospectors that I know are also fishermen, and none of us go up here looking to kill fish.

NILS COWAN: Angler and activist Kim McDonald says it’s time for tighter controls and more oversight.

KIM MCDONALD, Director, Fish Not Gold Campaign: We will be able to see if there’s any impacts from monitoring these guys, from having better enforcement. We will be able to see those impacts fairly quickly.

NILS COWAN: Caught in the middle is the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. They’re responsible for enforcing mining rules.

JEFF DAVIS, Washington Fish & Wildlife Habitat Program: We receive a lot of pressure from both ends of the spectrum on mineral prospecting.

NILS COWAN: Deputy Director Jeff Davis says that small-scale mining is on the rise, but more rules aren’t necessarily the answer.

JEFF DAVIS: Part of the ecosystem are humans and their way of life on the land, and that has to be part of how our agency achieves our mission. I don’t think you can regulate your way to long-term healthy fish and wildlife resources in every circumstance.

NILS COWAN: McDonald believes the increase in mining in already threatened fish habitat underscores the need for change.

KIM MCDONALD: If you take out a map of Washington state, every stream and river has anadromous fish. And almost every single one is dealing with fish that are going extinct. And we have spent since the late 1990s talking about what we should do about it. This is something we can do.

NILS COWAN: Back on the river, miner Ron Larson and his partner are shutting down for the day.

MAN: Let’s see if we’re getting any gold.

RON LARSON: Ooh, yes, I believe it is.

MAN: Wow.

RON LARSON: Maybe a $40, $50 nugget.

NILS COWAN: It doesn’t pay for the gas to get here, but Larson insists it’s worth it.

RON LARSON: Gold fever is a very, very real thing. It’s — it’s an adrenaline thing, and it always keeps you coming back.

NILS COWAN: As long as there’s gold in these rivers, Larson says, he will keep fighting for his right to search for it.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Nils Cowan in Seattle.