Suction-Dredge Gold Miner Working Idaho River Fined $150K

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A suction-dredge gold miner from California who operated in an Idaho river containing federally protected salmon and steelhead without permits required by the Clean Water Act must pay $150,000, a federal judge has ruled.

Shannon Poe received the fine Wednesday in an order by Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Raymond E. Patricco in U.S. District Court in Idaho.

Patricco ordered Poe to pay the $150,000 to the U.S. Treasury following Poe's 42 violations over three years of gold dredging on the South Fork of the Clearwater River. The violations, according to court documents, took place in 2014, 2015 and 2018.

The Idaho Conservation League filed a citizen enforcement lawsuit in August 2018 against Poe, saying federal and state officials didn’t act to make sure dozens of dredge miners followed the law.

"This ruling, which represents one of the largest Clean Water Act fines ever levied in Idaho against an individual, should send a clear message to miners, or anyone, who refuses to follow the rules,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League in a statement on Thursday.

Poe didn't return a phone message left for him on Thursday at the Coulterville, California-based American Mining Rights Association, where he serves as president. His attorneys, Constance Brooks of Fairfield and Woods, P.C., in Denver, Colorado, and Alan Schroeder of Schroeder Law in Boise, Idaho, also didn't respond to phone messages left by The Associated Press.

Suction dredge miners use an underwater hose to suck up gravel and sort it for gold in a sluice box mounted on a watercraft. The sediment is discharged downstream.

The waterway where Poe operated is designated critical habitat for federally protected steelhead, salmon and bull trout. Critics say dredging can destroy fish spawning beds, and that discharged sediment can smother fish eggs.

Federal and state agencies repeatedly notified Poe of the violations, but Poe denied being subject to the Clean Water Act, according to the lawsuit filed by the Idaho Conservation League. The Idaho Conservation League also said Poe encouraged unpermitted mining by other gold seekers in Idaho rivers.

Poe’s defense was to argue he didn’t need any type of Clean Water Act permit because his suction dredge didn’t add pollutants to the river. He said that even if his suction dredge did add pollutants, it would be considered dredged or fill material regulated under a different section of the Clean Water Act, also not requiring a specific type of permit.

But Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush in June 2021 disagreed. Bush said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed that the operation of a suction dredge resulted in discharge of processed waste, requiring the permit.

That led to the remedial phase of the case that resulted the $150,000 fine issued to Poe on Wednesday.

The maximum penalty Poe faced ranged from $37,500 to $60,000 per violation based on when the dredging occurred, adding up to nearly $2 million.

The Idaho Conservation League argued for a fine of $565,000. Poe said a fine of about $61,000 would be in line with the environmental impacts and would be enough to deter him from dredging in the river again without the required permits.

Patricco, in a lengthy analysis of the potential fine, noted that suction-dredge gold mining is allowed on the South Fork of the Clearwater River, but that Poe repeatedly dredged without required permits.

Ultimately, Patricco decided on a fine of $3,320 per violation for a total of about $139,500. Patricco also included in the fine the value of the gold Poe pulled from the river, roughly $10,500.

“The Court is satisfied that this penalty accounts for the harm involved, deters future violations, and represents an equitable application of the law,” Patricco wrote.