Rocky Barker: Idaho's EPA divide

July 7, 2014 

Near Riggins last week, 40 miners violated the law against suction-dredge mining on the Salmon River to protest the Environmental Protection Agency.

At nearly the same time, Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson was praising the federal agency for working with the city of Boise and farmers on an innovative plan to clean phosphorous pollution in the Boise River. These two events demonstrate how wide the divisions are in Idaho and across the nation when it comes to regulating and managing natural resources.

On Tuesday, six dredges pumped Salmon River gravel from Island Bar east of Riggins, which protesters said posed no threat to the endangered salmon and steelhead that spawn there. The miners face fines of up to $30,000 for the violation they committed as part of a peaceful protest.

"That's what Rosa Parks did," said Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik, who helped the hobby miners put the protest together.

But many of the miners removed or covered their license plates to make it harder for federal officials to identify them, according to Eric Barker's report in The Lewiston Tribune. They weren't following the lead of their organizer, John Crossman of Boise, or the several miners who did identify themselves.

When first announced, many worried the Salmon River protest might replicate the confrontation between rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. But in part due to Chmelik's efforts, the protesters and federal agencies made sure there was no confrontation.

There were no national reporters present as there were in Nevada. Neither were armed militia members flocking to the site - in part because there were no federal agents, at least not in uniform.

But it wasn't the kind of lovefest that took place at Boise's WaterShed Environmental Education Center. Simpson praised the Dixie Drain Phosphorous Offset Project and EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran for his agency's role in saving Boise residents money and, eventually, setting up a trading system that will pay Idaho farmers to clean up the pollution they put in the Boise River.

"I really want to thank the EPA for looking outside their rulebook," said Simpson, a longtime agency critic.

Crossman and his fellow miners would like the EPA to look outside its rulebook when it comes to requiring weekend miners to get a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.

But the agency won't issue such permits where threatened or endangered salmon spawn and rear. Because, despite Crossman and other miners' argument that they don't kill salmon, countless studies show the mining causes sedimentation, turbidity, habitat alteration and other impacts to fish.

Last February, the miners showed up for a hearing before the Idaho Legislature to get the state to step in to their fight. Afterward, several lawmakers sought to tell the EPA to stay out of the state.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden politely told lawmakers that they didn't have that power. Meanwhile, the Legislature as a whole approved shifting the pollution-discharge permit system from EPA to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, even though it's going to cost the state more money.

So soon it will be the state of Idaho telling the miners they can't suck up the gravel where endangered salmon spawn.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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