Muddy Waters: Will Oregon Ban Suction Dredge Gold Mining?

Wild, vast, and rugged, the West has always attracted individuals looking to turn its rich natural resources into quick cash. Yet as over a century of exploitation has proven, these resources are neither inexhaustible nor is the larger system in which they reside impervious to detrimental change. As such it is imperative that we as a society decide at what point the benefits of a given enterprise are outweighed by its social and environmental costs.

At the center of a present day debate over such issues is Oregon State Senate Bill 115 (SB 115). If enacted, SB 115 would effectively ban the use of suction dredging, a common gold mining technique, on Oregon waterways. The implications of the proposed legislation touch on a range of sensitive subjects related to property rights, access to public lands, and natural resource conservation.

Suction dredging is a mining technique that uses a floating diesel-powered vacuum hose to isolate gold and other precious metals from riverbed sediments. The machines are relatively small and are generally used recreationally by individuals. The tailings, or leftover materials, are often left in large piles on the river bottom while sediment-filled water is discharged back into the waterways.

Suction dredging advocates have argued that gold mining is an important source of revenue for rural communities and have labeled SB 115 a job killer. Opponents have also cited a handful of scientific studies which contend that suction dredging can increase salmon breeding habitat and that dredging activities can help clean waterways by removing mercury and other heavy metals from riverbeds.

Photo courtesy of KSWILD.org

Pro-mining groups, such as the Galice Mining District based out of Grants Pass, highlight the supremacy of federal laws that grant them legal access to mineral deposits. According to a statement on the group’s website, “Miners have a constitutionally protected right to go upon the Public Domain of the United States to search for locatable minerals, as well as the right to appropriate them for their exclusive possession and for their exclusive financial benefit.”

Environmental organizations that support SB 115 argue that suction dredging threatens the recovery of fish populations in sensitive fresh water ecosystems. They claim that by removing gravel or creating unstable gravel beds, which are susceptible to wash outs during periods of  high flow, dredging damages habitat that is critical to salmon spawning. In the process, dredges also vacuum up insects living in the stream beds that are a critical food source for fish and other aquatic organisms.

State Senator Alan Bates (D-Medford) spoke out in favor of SB 115 at a recent press conference saying, “Clean water and healthy fish are cherished Oregon values, and I’m calling for hearings and a thoughtful discovery process to ensure protection for these threatened rivers and streams.”

Tailings after dredging

In addition to the ecological impacts, supporters of SB 115 contend that there are serious social costs associated with mining activities. Still regulated by the largely unchanged General Mining Act of 1872, prospecting miners can lay claim to mineral resources located on public lands. As such, privately held mining claims are often established in areas of recreational interest, which has resulted in access conflicts for the general public. In one extreme case, a man was arrested for shooting an ATV rider whom he accused of “trespassing” on his mining claim in the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest.

The impact of these activities is underscored by the fact that suction dredging permits, issued primarily in southwest Oregon, have increased significantly over the past few years. Whereas a decade ago there were only 200 permits issued, in the summer of 2012 the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued more than 1,400 permits. This increase has been fueled by a combination of rising gold prices and a recently extended moratorium on suction dredging in California.

As SB 115, along with SB 401 which aims to expand the State Scenic Waterways Act, move through the State Legislature the debate over these contentious issues will continue to develop. Along the way legislators will be forced to navigate the muddy waters of conflicting laws as they seek a balance between individual rights and overall public and ecological good.

by Mike Vernon

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