Dredgers protest proposed permit revisions

Miners say DEQ restrictions would unfairly bar them from Rogue over mercury issue

Suction-dredge miners Monday thoroughly panned draft revisions to a water-quality permit that could push them off the Rogue River beginning next year, calling it a back-door move to push dredgers out of Oregon streams.

Miners at a public hearing in Medford said taking advantage of the discovery of mercury in the Rogue at as much as 10 times above the state standards is the state Department of Environmental Quality's part of the drubbing dredgers believe they get from regulatory agencies but don't deserve.

"A lot of stuff that's going on is bogus," miner Perry Allen said. "Each department has an agenda and we're the fall guys. They're denying us all our rights and we need to stand up."

Instead of banning dredgers, miners said they should be welcomed. Suction dredges can remove mercury from waterways, said miners, two of whom brought vials of mercury to the Medford Library meeting room.

"We remove mercury," Josephine County dredger Nick Dordon said. "We even turn it in, and you turn a blind eye.

"DEQ removes nothing but money from your pocket," he said.

The comments were made at a hearing on the newly drafted general water-quality permit dredgers will need to operate beginning in 2015.

Among its tighter restrictions are requirements that miners put identifying markers on their dredges, pay $150 a year, keep accurate activity records and replace any boulders or woody material they move to ply riverbeds for minerals, particularly gold.

But the biggest ire was saved for removing from the general permit any streams deemed "water-quality limited" for sediment, turbidity and toxic pollutants.

The Rogue is expected to be listed formally this year as water-quality limited for mercury after the Rogue's resident and non-native pikeminnow had mercury levels well above state standards when tested in 2010.

Once listed, 216 miles of the Rogue would not qualify for the general water-quality dredging permit. However, dredgers could return to the Rogue once the DEQ designates pollution load limits for mercury that specifically account for dredging.

Also, dredgers who would no longer have their operations covered under the general statewide water-quality permit could pay $300 and attempt to qualify for an individual permit that would be site-specific.

Members of the Rogue FlyFishers Association and the Rogue Riverkeeper program testified in favor of the tighter requirements, as did former miner Stanley Petrowski, who now does stream habitat work.

Petrowski said habitat degredation by humans over the past 120 years have harmed streams and their natural structures, and he recommended the DEQ keep all dredgers out of essential salmon habitat.

"This is not the Wild West anymore," Petrowski said.

The permit specifically regulates how much turbidity dredges can legally create as they suck up stream gravels in their search for precious metals, such as gold.

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, and 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 that the rule changes harm their industry.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.


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