Oregon Senate passes bill to limit gold dredges

FILE- This July 23, 2010 file photo shows Bob O'Day of Snowflake, Ariz., with flakes of gold he mined in a full day's work with a suction dredge from the Rogue River near Gold Hill, Ore. The influx of out-of-state miners like O'Day prompted a vote Wednesday, July 3, 2013, in the Oregon Senate on a bill to limit dredging for gold on salmon streams. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- Hoping to keep California and Idaho gold miners from putting more pressure on salmon streams in Oregon, the Oregon Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to cap the number of permits for suction dredge mining equipment and to prohibit mining in salmon spawning areas year-round.

The 17-13 vote in Salem sends SB838 to the House. It would cap the number of dredging permits at 850 through 2016, giving preference to people who held permits in 2009. It would also limit the number of miners to one every 500 feet on a river.

Democratic Sen. Alan Bates, of Medford, said he expects that the House will pass his bill and Gov. John Kitzhaber will sign it.

Suction dredges are giant gasoline-powered vacuum cleaners that suck the gravel from stream bottoms and run it through a settling device that concentrates the gold flecks left behind since the Gold Rush of the 1850s.

Conservation groups contend the technique damages fish and water quality, but miners, who rallied against an earlier version of the bill at the Capitol, contend it is harmless and actually improves fish habitat by breaking up stream bottoms to improve the medium for spawning and by removing harmful metals such as mercury.

Since California adopted a moratorium in 2009, miners have been crossing the border into Oregon. Idaho has also imposed stricter limits. The numbers of permits this year was expected to be triple the 850 sold in 2009.

The bill evolved out of an earlier proposal from conservation groups to impose a total ban on gold dredging on salmon rivers through wild and scenic river designations.

The bill calls on the governor to bring together miners, fishermen and other interest groups to report by 2014 on what parts of the law are working, and what parts are not.

"This legislation doesn't solve the problem, but it's an important step forward in dealing with the invasion of Californians looking to mine Oregon rivers," said Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild, a conservation group. "It's disheartening to see sustainable businesses like rafting companies and fishing guides getting crowded out of rivers by polluting and noisy suction dredges."

Geoff Garcia, a geologist and miner who lives on a claim on a tributary of the Rogue River near Grants Pass, said the limitations made no sense.

"With deference to the 150 or 200 years of mining this state has had, you would think they would try to figure out if the dredges are actually hurting something before they outlaw them," he said. "If they are really worried about the salmon, they could say, 'Let's stop fishing for a few years,' and see if that affects salmon."