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Rogue mercury levels could block dredge mining

The recent discovery of elevated levels of mercury in the Rogue River's resident pikeminnow could, at least temporarily, regulate suction-dredge miners off 216 miles of the Rogue River and other Oregon streams beginning in 2015.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is proposing a five-year renewal of a general water-quality permit needed by miners to suction-dredge in Oregon streams.

But the renewal specifically does not cover dredging in certain "water quality-limited" streams, a status now pending for the Rogue River after it was found to have mercury levels as much as 10 times higher than state standards for toxic pollutants.

The water quality-limited designation for the Rogue is expected to become official this summer. If so, the Rogue would not qualify for suction dredging under the general statewide water-quality permit as currently proposed for 2015, said Beth Moore, the DEQ's general permit coordinator in Portland.

Suction dredgers, however, could return to the Rogue under the proposed general permit if the DEQ's designated total limit loads for mercury specifically account for the effects of dredging, Moore said.

Dredgers who would no longer have their operations covered under the general statewide water-quality permit could pay $300 and apply for an individual permit that would be site-specific, Moore said.

A public hearing to gather comment on the permit proposal will be held at 5 p.m. Monday at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave. Other hearings were scheduled next week for Portland and Baker City.

— Mark Freeman

Read more in Saturday's Mail Tribune.