Miners go to court over suction dredge moratorium

Miners go to court over suction dredge moratorium
By Mark Freeman
Medford Mail Tribune

October 21, 2015

Miners have asked a federal judge to block Oregon’s upcoming moratorium on suction dredge mining in wild salmon rivers such as the Rogue, claiming federal mining laws trump state restrictions on federal lands.

A consortium of mining interests filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Medford over the five-year ban on most suction dredging, which is set to begin Jan. 1 under a 2013 state law.

The group also asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke to bar the state from enforcing its moratorium “so they can’t continue on with their nefarious ban” until the federal case is settled, said Rick Barclay, president of the Galice Mining District, which is one of the plaintiffs.

“This is our way of telling the state of Oregon to drop dead,” Barclay said.

The suit, however, could be moot this winter if state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, introduces a bill, as planned, during the short legislative session that would enact dredging rules similar to, or slightly more restrictive than, this year’s rules that curbed dredging times, operations and locations.

Any new legislation would be in place before suction dredgers return to Oregon streams in mid-June, when the state’s normal period for allowing in-stream work begins, Bates said.
“We’ll eliminate the moratorium with the new bill,” Bates said. “If the bill doesn’t pass, we’ll test the moratorium in court.”

Barclay said he was “not going to hold my breath” for a legislative fix, which he called “the easier way out” for the state than trying to defend its policies in federal court.
“I’m not going to wait for something to occur,” Barclay said. “We’re just going to make it happen.”

Federal court records show that Clarke ordered both sides to submit their first round of motions by March 21. No other court dates have been set.

In 2013, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 838, which detailed the current restrictions, capped the number of dredging permits offered annually in Oregon, and limited some of the times, locations and manner for how dredgers operate. It was designed to sunset at the end of 2015 to give the Legislature time to grapple with permanent rules, which never materialized.

The upcoming moratorium would ban suction dredging within wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in creeks and rivers deemed “essential salmon habitat.” That effectively bans suction dredges in the Illinois as well as the Rogue and its tributaries below Lost Creek Lake and the Applegate River and its tributaries below Applegate Lake.

The exceptions in the Rogue Basin downstream of Lost Creek Lake would be small headwater streams where state fish biologists have not documented wild salmon or steelhead spawning or rearing in them, and they also represent areas not normally mined with suction dredges, according to the bill.

The moratorium as written is to remain in effect until 2021.

Suction-dredge mining employs a floating vacuum to suck gravel from a stream bottom. Materials vacuumed by the dredge then go through a sluice to allow miners to strain out gold and other heavy metals, while sand, silt and other fine materials are discharged into the water.

Wild-salmon advocates say the process damages spawning grounds and rearing habitat. Miners have argued that current laws already protect salmon and their habitat, and they have argued that no peer-reviewed study on suction dredging proves it ruins salmon habitat.