Oregon Legislature puts permanent restrictions on suction dredge mining

5/31/2017

Legislation to put permanent restrictions on motorized suction dredge mining in Oregon is headed to the Governor for her signature.

Lawmakers, led by the late Sen. Alan Bates, struggled for years to find a compromise between protecting the state’s iconic salmon and steelhead and supporting the hobby miners who have invested in equipment and spend money in struggling rural communities.

“This compromise legislation strikes a balance between the unique cultural heritage of Oregon mining… and the significant risk it poses to the health of our native fish,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland.

Marsh carried Senate Bill 3, which passed the House 38-20 Wednesday, May 31.

Suction dredge mining involves vacuuming up riverbeds through a hose, using a motorized floating dredge.

Opponents say it can increase turbidity, stir up mercury deposits, trap and kill aquatic insects, fish eggs and juvenile fish, and create noise that bothers other river users.

Supporters say it is harmless when done properly, and can even enhance fish habitat.

“I’m passionate about people and their habitat,” Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said during the floor debate. “This is a bill that pits phantom fish against real people and today real people will lose.”

California placed a moratorium on suction dredge mining in 2009. As a result, large numbers of suction dredge miners moved to the rivers of southern Oregon.

That prompted the Oregon Legislature to pass Senate Bill 838 in 2013. It imposed a moratorium, through Jan. 2, 2021, on motorized mining for precious metals in streams and upland of rivers and tributaries with essential indigenous salmon habitat.

Senate Bill 3 repeals the moratorium, except in areas up to the ordinary high water line in any river containing essential indigenous salmonid habitat.

In other areas, suction dredge operators would need a permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Permit rules would include limited hours of operation.

About 20 percent of the state’s 100,000 miles of streams and rivers will be restricted under the bill.

“Today’s vote is critical for the health of Oregon’s rivers and the communities that rely upon them.” Stacey Detwiler, of conservation director for Rogue Riverkeeper, said in a statement.