A measure passed by the state Legislature earlier this month aims to cut nearly two-thirds of the permits allowed for suction-dredge mining in Oregon's salmon-bearing rivers, including the Rogue River.
Senate Bill 838 is on Gov. John Kitzhaber's desk and he plans to sign it, said Tim Raphael, his communications director. Kitzhaber has until Aug. 19 to sign legislatively approved measures into law.
The bill, which has been supported in the environmental camp while vigorously opposed by the mining community, was approved by the Senate on July 3, followed by the House on July 7.
Suction dredge mining employs a vacuum to suck up gravel from a stream bottom. Materials from the river bottom then go through a sluice to allow miners to strain out gold and other heavy metals.
Beginning in 2014, the law would set a limit of 850 permits for suction dredge mining on Oregon's salmon-bearing rivers, matching the level allowed in 2009. There are roughly 2,400 permits allowed this year. In addition, the law implements new restrictions on where, when and how dredging can occur.
However, if the additional protections aren't in place by the end of 2015, the law requires a five-year moratorium on suction dredge mining to go into effect while the protections are implemented.
"Southern Oregon is home to thousands of us who consider our peaceful, pristine rivers a legacy to pass on to the next generation," said measure co-sponsor Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, during the debate over the bill.
"Left unchecked, the impact of vacuuming up all these river beds will be bad for property owners, bad for recreational river users, and bad for fish and wildlife," he said. "It's just common sense that we would put in place a solution to protect our rivers from harm, while allowing safe recreational mining in our rivers."
Supporters of the bill say the number of mining dredges being used in Oregon increased dramatically following new restrictions in California and Idaho, driving miners to the Beaver State. In 2009, California placed a moratorium on suction dredge mining in that state, citing its impacts on the salmon population. New federal permit requirements in Idaho have reduced dredging there.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported it issued 1,205 dredging permits in 2011, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. Permit holders in Oregon who list California as their address increased from 51 in 2011 to 85 in 2012, according to the state.
The new law is necessary, said Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild.
"It's disheartening to see sustainable businesses like rafting companies and fishing guides getting crowded out of rivers by polluting and noisy suction dredges," he said.
"World-class rivers like the Rogue and Umpqua attract rafters and anglers from all over the world," he added. "No one is coming to Oregon to dodge dredges in their raft or fish next to them."
But in testimony submitted to the Legislature, miners countered that existing laws already protect fish and water quality. The law would severely damage the state's mining industry as well individual miners, they said.
In an earlier interview with the Daily Tidings, Tom Kitchar, head of the Waldo Mining District, warned the bill could engulf the state in a mountain of lawsuits.
"The state has no authority to prohibit mining on federal land," he said. "If we can't mine on our legitimate claims, they are taking our private property away from us."
He employs a suction dredge in his placer mining operation but can use it only from mid-June to mid-September, a period when fish are not spawning, he noted.
"I believe what we do is beneficial to the fish," he said, adding that suction dredging creates spawning gravel for fish.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.