BOISE - A bill that seeks to exempt small-scale suction dredge miners from federal regulation advanced to the House floor Wednesday, surprising even the bill's sponsor.

"I can't believe it," said Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, after the House Resources and Conservation Committee sent his measure to the House amending order for some changes.

Shepherd's bill was prompted by ongoing disputes with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which began requiring dredge miners to secure water quality discharge permits in 2013, saying the activity causes stream pollution.

Among other issues, the legislation prohibits regulations that impose seasonal restrictions on small-scale dredge mining, arbitrarily limit the power of the equipment, or block access to streams located in historical mining districts.

A Feb. 6 state attorney general opinion said the measure "attempts to declare that certain suction dredge activities are either exempt from, or not subject to, provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act."

The bill also, according to the opinion, "conflicts with several state constitutional and statutory provisions placing environmental protections upon certain rivers and streams. In addition, the large number of ambiguities (in the bill) may render portions of it unenforceable."

The opinion goes on, "for brevity's sake," to list nearly a dozen specific sections of the bill that are "particularly problematical."

State Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, said while he sympathized with the plight of the dredge miners, Shepherd's bill appeared to be fatally flawed.

"Any time this body gets an opinion from the AG where there are this many problems with a bill, I think it behooves us to hold it in committee or return it to the sponsor until the issues are corrected," he said. "I don't enjoy dealing with the EPA, either, but this committee can't just set aside (federal regulations)."

Gibbs tried to hold the legislation in committee, but his motion failed on a 9-9 tie.

Dozens of people attended the bill hearing, but only six people testified, including Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik. All spoke in favor of the measure.

Dredge mining "is just one more thing (environmental organizations) are trying to take away from our communities that creates an economy," Chmelik said. "It's one more thing that holds the fabric of our communities together, and these organizations are ripping them out one by one. It's time we pass some laws that can swing that pendulum back. This bill represents more than just a battle for dredge miners; it's about protecting an entire way of life."

Don Smith of Riggins described a small-scale dredge as "a very small excavator capable of vacuuming small amounts of riverbed sediments to the surface for a short trip across the sluice box and redeposition on the stream bed. It's incapable of anything else."

Mining regulations that were adopted in the 1950s focused on large bucket dredges, he said, but the technology has improved considerably since that time. No outside pollutants are introduced to the water, and no remediation is necessary because river beds are reworked annually during the spring runoff.

"The nature of regulations is to be prohibitive," Smith said. "When excessive regulations are placed on small-scale dredge miners, they have the effect of making mining claims unprofitable."

Shepherd said modern dredge mining is a fairly small industry, but it's an important one for rural communities.

"That gold is just laying in the bottom of the creek," he said. "It's not doing anybody any good. As soon as these guys go to work and bring it out, it circulates in our communities."

However, based on comments in the attorney general's opinion, Shepherd asked the committee to send his bill to the amending order so an incorrect reference to a California court case could be removed.

That motion was approved, but any legislation in the amending order is subject to whatever amendments lawmakers want to offer. The entire House will vote on the proposed amendments, and then vote on the amended bill. If it passes, it would then move on to the Senate.

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Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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