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Dredgers might return to the Rogue next year

Suction dredgers could be back on the Rogue River next summer if a new list of Oregon's polluted waters that includes the Rogue fails to get federal approval by the start of the next dredging season.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has yet to give the federal government its updated draft list of so-called "water-quality impaired" streams, which for the first time would designate the Rogue as having unhealthy levels of toxic mercury.

The designation stems from the discovery of mercury at more than 10 times federal Clean Water Act standards in the Rogue's resident pikeminnow, which is considered a bellweather species for contamination within the food chain.

Under new state rules set to go into effect next year, streams with levels of toxins that exceed federal standards will not qualify for a general water-quality permit that dredgers need to operate in hundreds of Oregon waterways when the season begins June 15.

But only streams identified as water-quality impaired in the DEQ's current list, which does not include the Rogue, would fall under the dredging ban, DEQ officials say.

That means miners could return to the entire 216-mile course of the Rogue. Most miners had expected their recently completed season to be their last on the river's main stem.

"The bottom line is, if we don't have an approved list, then the Rogue River wouldn't be identified as impaired," says Jennifer Wigel, the DEQ's water quality program manager. "It wouldn't be applicable."

The DEQ had hoped to turn that draft list over to the federal Environmental Protection Agency earlier this summer for review and approval, but the agency continues to answer questions raised about the list and the data used to support those designations.

Debra Sturdevant, the DEQ's water-quality standards and assessment manager, says EPA officials are concerned about the "limited scope" of the studies supporting the new designations on streams throughout Oregon.

The federal agency also would like to see a more complete analysis of the streams in question and ensure the standard of "all relevant and reasonably available data" is met, according to the agency.

"Since we know they have concerns about it, I can't predict when they will take action on it," Sturdevant says. "It's so up in the air. I think it's probably going to take a little while."

The last approved list was assembled in 2010 and was adopted by the EPA in December 2012. The EPA initially disapproved of part of the list, and federal scientists completed it.

If the EPA ends up approving the draft list or approves a portion of the list that includes the Rogue, that work should be done "well before" June's start for dredging, said Dave Croxton, regional manager of the EPA's watershed unit based in Seattle.

But if EPA officials don't approve the list and have to redo it themselves, "then I would not say it would be ready by June," Croxton says.

Rick Barclay, chairman of the Galice Mining District along the Rogue, says he believes the two agencies are mired in  debates that favor dredgers.

"Given the amount of government non-production, I think there will be another season on the Rogue," Barclay says.

Dredgers likely will wait to buy the $150 permit until the agencies resolve their issues or wait until close to the dredging season, Barclay says.

"Who's going to want to spend the $150 application fee if you can't mine where you want to?" he says.

At issue is the 2010 discovery of elevated levels of mercury in the Rogue's pikeminnow caught at what was once the Gold Ray Dam area near Gold Hill and at Robertson Bridge in Josephine County.

Pikeminnows collect mercury over time in their tissues as the toxin moves up the food chain, indicating that larger predators such as eagles and other raptors would ingest it when feeding on them.

Municipal water-treatment systems on the Rogue have never detected unsafe levels of mercury in the water they pull from the river, according to the DEQ.

The river's salmon and steelhead generate most of their body mass from ocean feeding and are not considered harmed by mercury.

Experts say the mercury likely is a mix of natural elements found in the region's rock formations, as well as so-called "legacy mercury" remnants from past mining operations.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.