Environmentalists oppose bill allowing gold prospectors to use dredges in TN streams

A bill that would allow gold prospecting in Tennessee streams with mechanical devices is raising concerns among environmentalists, reports the Tennessean.

SB390, sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley and Rep. Steve McDaniel, authorizes the use of “dredges with motors of ten horsepower (10 h.p.) or less and a suction nozzle of four inches (4″) or less in diameter” by gold seekers in Tennessee streams, including those on public lands. Those using the devices would have to get a permit and the nine-page bill sets out some restrictions on using them. It’s up for a vote next week in a Senate committee.

The legislation is supported by the Gold Prospectors Association of America. Richard Robinson, the state director of the organization, said the intent is just to set “common sense” rules instead of overreaching ones that would shut down hobbyists from prospecting.

Annie Passino, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said she is concerned the bill would allow dredging.

“When I attended a House committee meeting last week, the Gold Prospectors Association of America gave a presentation and portrayed this type of mining as a harmless activity designed primarily for parents to spend time with their children to get them away from video games,” Passino said. “While ‘panning’ for gold might fall into this category, the legislation seeks permission to use a machine that basically vacuums up the bottom of the stream bed.”

But Robinson said the devices used are small ones with motors similar to a lawn mower.

“What we want to achieve with this bill is to provide common sense rules that are environmentally considerate, are conservation-minded and that will provide a baseline set of rules to govern the activity of small-scale, noncommercial prospecting in the state,” Robinson said.

He said recently enacted rules don’t make distinctions between commercial scale and non-commercial devices used in prospecting.

A state official also has concerns about the legislation.

Robert M. Todd, an environmentalist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, referenced the Senate and House bills in a March 9 letter to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

“To be clear, in high quality, biologically diverse streams, mechanical dredging is a straight-forward destruction of habitat for fish and aquatic life,” Todd wrote. “This degradation of acquatic resources is wholly contrary to both the intent and letter of the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act and the Tennessee Wildlife Code.”