State Sen. Alan Bates introduced a bill Friday that he says will make "reasonable changes" to new suction dredge-mining laws set to go into effect this summer for two years while the state grapples with how to permanently regulate these operations.
Bates, D-Medford, introduced Senate Bill 1585 Friday seeking what he says are amendments miners and environmental advocates sought to a controversial law governing suction mining through 2015.
The new bill does not change this year's rollback to a maximum of 850 dredgers working Oregon's salmon-bearing streams, but it more clearly states, at environmental groups' request, how those permits will be meted out and mesh with other state laws, Bates says.
And at miners' request, the bill would allow dredgers to work closer together, allow them to keep their dredges in the water overnight and would make the new 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. window for dredging apply only within 1,000 feet of a residence.
Those changes, Bates says, would help miners with safety issues and allow them a larger working window away from residences during fire season, when restrictions ban equipment operations during hotter times of the day.
The proposed changes would not, Bates contends, reduce rules meant to protect river bottoms in wild salmon habitat.
"Basically there was some room here to make changes without altering the basic structure of what we did last year," Bates says. "It's nice to see both sides working together instead of yelling at each other.
"It's not a gutting of the (original) bill," he says. "From my point of view, it's a confirmation of the bill."
The bill, which was cosponsored by state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, must get a quick and positive reception from the Senate and the House of Representatives to be enacted in this short session or it dies.
"If it's not out of committee by Wednesday, it's dead," Bates says. "Then we'll have to wait until 2015."
But at least one supporter of the new suction-dredge restrictions believes Bates' legislative fix favors mining interests.
"This is trying to fix a few things that the mining community was unhappy about in the new law," says Forrest English of the Rogue Riverkeeper Program based in Ashland.
English says he will ask to work with Bates to get a more balanced package of changes to the new law.
Suction dredge mining employs a floating vacuum to suck up gravel from a stream bottom. Materials from the river bottom then go through a sluice to allow miners to strain out gold and other heavy metals.
Wild salmon advocates decry them as damaging spawning grounds and rearing habitat. Miners have argued that current laws already protect salmon and their habitat and that the changes harm their industry.
The law capped dredge permits at 2009 levels, just before moratoriums on dredging in California and other states as well as a spike in gold prices led to a rush of miners to Oregon rivers such as the Rogue. Dredge permits jumped to about 2,400 in Oregon last year.
The dredging season differs on various rivers and follows the legal in-water work period to protect wild salmon eggs and young fry in the gravels. On the Rogue River, the season runs June 15 through Aug. 31, while the Illinois River season is June 15 to Sept. 15. On the Applegate River, the season runs July 1 through Sept. 1.
The new law, which will go into effect when the dredging season opens, requires dredgers to stay 500 feet away from each other, requires that the dredges be removed from the water when not attended and that they can be operated only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The new bill reduces the space between dredges to 200 feet, which Bates says was a request by miners for safety since they often work in tandem and can better keep an eye out for each other. The time restriction keeps intact the intent of banning early operation around houses while giving out-of-the-way miners a chance to start working at daybreak during days when fire restrictions halt afternoon machine operations, Bates says.
The bill would allow dredges to be left in the water unattended provided they be secured to the bank, don't impede boating and have no hazardous or flammable materials on board and that the equipment is tended to at least once every 24 hours.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.