Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has signed a bill into law that will limit the number of small gold-mining dredges in Oregon’s waterways.
Environmental groups pushed for the law. They say rivers in Oregon have become crowded with gold miners using vacuum-like dredges, called suction dredges, as a result of rising gold prices and new restrictions on the practice in neighboring states. California banned suction dredge mining in 2009, and this year the EPA began requiring Idaho miners to get permits before dredging.
According to the group Rogue Riverkeeper, the number of permits issued in Oregon jumped from 414 in 2005 to 2,409 in 2012.
The new law caps the number of dredging permits each year at 850. It also directs the Governor’s office to send new suction dredge mining regulations to the legislature by 2015.
Forrest English, with Rogue Riverkeeper, says the limit on permits is a good first step to protect habitat for species like salmon, trout, and lamprey. “The big change is, starting next year we’ll see two thirds less dredges on Oregon’s rivers and streams,” English says.
But, he says he’d like to see the state go further.
Miners from across Oregon traveled to Salem to testify against the bill. They say their dredges are safe for fish and can help create spawning gravels.
Theo Stanley, with the Jefferson Mining District, says the impact of suction dredge mining on fish habitat has been exaggerated. He points out that miners have only been allowed in rivers during the summer months, after salmonids have emerged from the gravel.
“What the state has come after us on is turbidity, and the turbidity is no worse than it is from October to April when it’s raining and we have runoff from the winter rains,” he says.
Stanley says the new law interferes with miners’ property rights, and several southern Oregon mining associations plan to challenge it in court.