Most dredging banned under new proposed guidelines

Dec 03, 2014 | Mark Freeman | Mail Tribune

Suction-dredge mining would be banned from streams running through private lands throughout the Rogue River Basin and much of Western Oregon and limited on federal lands under a new state framework proposed to govern mining rules in 2016 and beyond.

A long-awaited report by a task force created by the 2013 Oregon Legislature recommends that no dredging be allowed on private lands in waters considered essential stream habitat for wild salmon and Pacific lamprey throughout Western Oregon.

In the Rogue Basin, that would include the main-stem Rogue, Applegate and Illinois rivers along with every tributary downstream from major dams such as Lost Creek, Applegate and Reeder — dams with no mechanism for salmon to cross, according to the report.

It would also include streams downstream of major waterfalls that provide natural salmon and lamprey barriers as well as waters flowing through federal wilderness and wilderness study areas, state scenic waterways and state parks.

For dredging on federal lands, miners for gold and other precious metals would be required to obtain an individual permit to operate, and they would first have to provide documentation that their specific operations in specific areas wouldn't harm wild salmon or their habitat.

But no such permits would be granted on streams that fail to meet state and federal water-quality standards for sediment, turbidity, toxins or heavy metals. That likely will include the entire Rogue, which is awaiting formal federal designation as failing to meet federal standards for mercury levels after 2010 tests revealed high mercury levels in the main stem from the sea to its source within Crater Lake National Park.

The Applegate and Illinois rivers and their tributaries have not been tested for mercury and, therefore, are not part of the proposed Rogue designation. Therefore, federal lands along those rivers could be open to dredgers provided they secure an individual permit, according to the report.

Similar proposals address placer mining upstream of protected waterways.

The report's frameworks are expected to go before the Oregon Legislature next year, under Gov. John Kitzhaber's stated goal of getting the new laws in place for 2016.

Karen Tarnow, a state Department of Environmental Quality policy adviser who worked on the report, said she believes the group working on the report did what it was charged to do and that the report will spur lively debate when the concepts hit the Oregon Legislature in the form of bills.

"It's comprehensive and complicated because of how many different types of land uses and concerns we needed to address," Tarnow said. "I think we did hit the mark. There are things in here that a variety of interest groups will like and not like."

At the top of the don't-like list are miners such as Waldo Mining District President Tom Kitchar of Cave Junction, who sat on the working group. He said the group had miners in its cross-hairs.

"It's a witch hunt," Kitchar said.

Kitchar said he believes the group's creation was based on wrangling in a handful of recreational dredgers but brought in commercial dredgers and placer miners.

"They attacked a relatively small problem with a sledge hammer," Kitchar said.

The report does not offer a bill in written form for the Legislature to take up because the group was not asked to do so, Tarnow said.

It also does not contain specifics about other conditions for general and individual permits, such as exact water-quality standards that need to be met, native mussel protection or whether current in-stream work periods will be altered.

It also does not state whether those standards will be part of an introduced bill or left to the DEQ to flesh out if the bill is enacted.

Forrest English of the Ashland-based Rogue Riverkeeper took part in the working group that drafted the report. He said he supports most of the main pieces of it. However, English said his view on it could change based on how the language ultimately is written.

"As they say, the devil's in the details," English said. "All of these questions will determine our thoughts going forward."

The report was ordered by the same 2013 law that rolled back the number of dredging permits to 850 — the same number issued in 2009, before moratoriums on dredging in California and other states and a spike in gold prices led to a rush of miners to Oregon rivers such as the Rogue.

That law also added new restrictions to dredgers' operations, which are slated to remain in effect through 2016 while permanent rules are debated.

The dredging season differs on various rivers and follows the legal in-water work period to protect wild salmon eggs and young fry in the gravels.

On the Rogue River, the season runs June 15 through Aug. 31, while the Illinois River season is June 15 to Sept. 15. On the Applegate River, the season runs July 1 through Sept. 1.