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Perry Allen examines some trash his dredge pulled from the bottom of the Rogue River in this 2014 photo. A Senate bill that passed in the Oregon House today bans suction dredge mining in Western Oregon wild salmon habitat and is headed for the governor's signature. [Mail Tribune File Photo]

Permanent suction-dredge ban heads to governor

Suction dredge mining will be permanently banned from Western Oregon's wild salmon habitat under a bill that passed the Oregon House today, awaiting only Gov. Kate Brown's pledged signature to create stream protection once championed by the late Democratic Sen. Alan Bates.

Senate Bill 3, which takes the place of a similar temporary ban now in place, passed the House today with a bipartisan vote of 37-20 after a log jam of bills bumped it from a floor vote nine consecutive days.

Brown spokesman Bryan Hockaday said the governor intends to sign the bill, perhaps as early as next week.

News of the vote drew praise from salmon and stream advocates who see the measure as a way of protecting wild salmon while still allowing dredging in places such as Eastern Oregon, which albeit are less attractive to suction dredgers. 

"We think it really is a compromise that protects rivers but not at the total expense of suction-dredge mining, which can still occur in rivers in the rest of the state," said Stacey Detwiler, conservation director for the Ashland-based Rogue Riverkeeper.

"We think we've landed in a good place," Detwiler said.

The bill was carried on the House floor by freshman Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland. Arguments against the bill were offered on the floor by Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass.

Rick Barclay, of the Galice Mining District and a dredging supporter, could not be reached for comment.

The bill passed the Senate 21-9 last month, with Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, voting in favor and Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, opposed.

The bill would make permanent 2016's temporary ban on suction dredging within wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in creeks and rivers deemed "essential salmon habitat." That would effectively ban suction dredges in the Illinois River, the Rogue River and its tributaries below Lost Creek Lake, and the Applegate River and its tributaries below Applegate Lake.

The bill also bans dredging in habitat of Pacific lamprey, which are also present in the Rogue Basin.

It repeals the temporary current moratorium on suction-dredge mining in salmon habitat that is set to expire in 2021.

Bates pushed a nearly identical bill in the 2016 session that died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee and never had a full Senate or House vote.

Bates died in August of an apparent heart attack at age 71.

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.

In 2013, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 838, which detailed new dredging 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 until this session.

"The history is part of why it was easy to move it through this session," Detwiler said. "That's the result of all those years of research, thought and compromise."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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