VICTORY! Court Rules Suction Dredge Miner Violated Clean Water Act in Idaho

9th of Jun 2021

Advocates for the West is celebrating a sound victory against suction dredge miner Shannon Poe of California for violating the Clean Water Act (CWA) by operating a suction dredge on Idaho’s South Fork of the Clearwater River for 42 days last summer without a CWA permit.

We filed suit against Poe on behalf of Idaho Conservation League (ICL). Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush in Idaho federal court determined that Poe polluted the South Fork of the Clearwater River and needed a permit to dredge, as required under the CWA. In addition to being a popular destination for boaters, anglers, and hikers, the beautiful South Fork Clearwater provides critical habitat for salmon, steelhead, bull trout, lamprey, and other sensitive species. 

Judge Bush ruled against each of the arguments Poe’s lawyers put before him. His ruling affirms that suction dredge mining requires permits under the Clean Water Act, and that the removal, processing, and disposal of material sucked from the bottom of rivers and streams with motorized equipment constitute a “discharge.” 

“This decision sends a strong message to suction dredge miners that they are not above the law,” said Staff Attorney Bryan Hurlbutt, who represented ICL in this case. “This is also a victory for the South Fork Clearwater, a river that sees high levels of suction dredging and suffers from excessive sediment pollution.”

ICL’s Director of External Relations Jonathan Oppenheimer said, “Dirtying Idaho’s waters by suction dredge mining degrades our rivers, threatens water quality, and further endangers our fish and wildlife. Today’s ruling demonstrates that we all must do our part to protect clean water.”

He added, “Judge Bush’s decision clearly spells out the important protections requiring dredge miners to abide by rules designed to protect clean water. Whether you’re a boater, angler, logger, or miner, you have to follow the rules; it’s our responsibility as citizens.”

The court will now consider the appropriate penalty. The only other similar case against another South Fork Clearwater River dredge miner resulted in a penalty of $6,600 for a single day of dredging. A similar per-day penalty for Poe would result in a fine of over $277,000, but Poe’s repeated violations, ignoring warnings, and encouraging others to do the same could warrant even higher penalties.

For years, Poe and his organization, the American Mining Rights Association, have encouraged miners to ignore federal rules on the South Fork Clearwater River. We initially filed suit against Poe on behalf of ICL in August 2018 for dredging on the river without a CWA permit. In September 2019, the court denied Poe’s motion to dismiss our case, and in August 2020, the court heard arguments on Poe’s CWA violations.

In Idaho, suction dredge miners must apply for permits to comply with state and federal rules to protect endangered species, water quality, and other public resources. We are hopeful that this sweeping victory will encourage these miners to take the necessary steps to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act.Read the Court’s Decision