A bill that would have eased temporary suction-dredge rules two months before they go into effect has died in the Oregon Legislature, a victim of the lack of time needed to vet complicated issues in the short session.
Introduced by state Sen. Alan Bates as a way to make "reasonable changes" just months after the temporary rules were enacted, Senate Bill 1585 never got a hearing in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Giving miners a break on the rules before they go into effect this spring — such as reducing the allowable space between dredges and adjusting legal dredging hours — quickly became issues the Senate couldn't settle with only a few days' window, said Bates, D-Medford.
"The bottom line is we don't have time for complex bills during a short session," Bates said.
He intends to introduce a version of this session's bill in 2015, the final year under the two-year temporary rules.
Waiting until the 2015 session will allow a summer under the temporary rules to see which changes worked and which could use some tweaking, he said.
"It will be a good way to start the conversation," Bates said.
The temporary rules were written as a quick response to an explosion of dredge mining in Oregon amid rising gold values, which caused mining permits to nearly triple.
A working group and the Legislature plan to hammer out permanent rule changes for 2016 and beyond.
Forrest English of Rogue Riverkeeper in Ashland said he was glad to see SB 1585 die quietly without a hearing. He said any changes via a new version of that bill in 2015 will pale compared to the major overhaul ordered by Gov. John Kitzhaber that will dominate the mining debate next year.
"I think that's where things are going to be very significant, and I bet Senator Bates will be part of that, too," English said.
Suction-dredge mining employs a floating vacuum to suck 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 say the process damages spawning grounds and rearing habitat. Miners have argued that current laws already protect salmon and their habitat and that the rule changes harm their industry.
The new law, based on a bill co-sponsored by Bates, capped dredge permits at 850 — the same level Oregon had in 2009 just before dredging bans in other states caused miners to flock to the Rogue River and other Oregon streams. Dredge permits jumped to about 2,400 in Oregon last year.
The dredging season differs between 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 apart, requires that the dredges be removed from the water when not attended, and limits hours of operation to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Bates' bill sought to reduce the space between dredges to 200 feet, which Bates said was a request by miners for safety, because they often work in tandem and can better keep an eye out for each other.
A proposed change to the time restriction would have kept 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.
The bill also would have allowed dredges to be left in the water unattended provided they were secured to the bank, wouldn't impede boating and had no hazardous or flammable materials on board. The equipment would have had to be tended at least once every 24 hours.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.