The Oregon Legislature gave its final approval Wednesday to a bill that puts permanent limits on suction dredge mining.
The practice has been controversial because of noise and concerns about harm to fish habitat and water quality.
Suction dredge, or placer mining, is a kind of motorized in-stream mineral extraction. Picture a lawnmower motor floating top of a pontoon in a river. The motor powers a large vacuum hose, which is used by a swimming miner to suck up sediment in the search for gold.
Fishing and environmental groups have been trying to limit the practice in Oregon for years. They succeeded in passing a partial moratorium on suction dredge mining back in 2013. The current bill would slightly modify and codify the restrictions.
While allowing suction dredge mining to continue, the new bill protects 20,700 miles of rivers and streams considered “essential salmon habitat.” It restricts when suction dredges can be operated in proximity to a residence or campground. It also requires permitting by the state.
“The main goal is to prevent this kind of hobby, recreational mining activity from undoing the hundreds of millions of dollars in salmon habitat restoration that we’ve been focusing on for decades,” says Nick Cady, Legal Director of Cascadia Wildlands.
The group has supported Senate Bill 3, which passed the House Wednesday, 38-20. The bill cleared the Oregon Senate in April. It now goes to the governor to be signed into law.
Since the moratorium passed five years ago, the number of suction dredge permits in the state has plummeted – from a recent high of about 2,000 in 2012 to just 156 last year. And while 156 suction dredge mines won’t undo hundreds of millions of dollars in salmon restoration work, a relatively small body of scientific work on the issue does point to the potential for negative effects on aquatic wildlife.
Mining enthusiasts have disputed that their hobby hurts the environment. They say the bill violates federal mining laws and will have negative economic consequences.
Samantha Everett works at Armadillo Mining Shop in Grants Pass. Although she doesn't speak for the company, she says her livelihood depends on the patrons of the shop being able to access places to mine.
“Oregon’s in deficit, and they’re removing money out of our state?” she said, “I don’t understand the logic.”
She says state lawmakers are trying to close public lands miners have legal access to under federal law.
A large percentage of the suction dredge operations are in southwest Oregon, which has a long mining history.
“They’re locking down… a culture and way of life,” Everett says.
California banned suction dredge mining in 2009. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the practice in Idaho. Washington has much more permissive rules governing placer mining.