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Suction dredge ban nears vote

A permanent ban on suction dredging in Western Oregon's wild salmon habitat championed by the late Democratic Sen. Alan Bates is one step away from landing on Gov. Kate Brown's desk.

The House Energy and Environment Committee late Monday passed Senate Bill 3, sending it to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

The bill passed 6-3, with votes in favor including new Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, who said the vote came with no discussion on the bill.

"It's stripped down so it really addresses the core issue, the essential habitat for salmon and steelhead," Marsh said after the vote. 

Those opposed included Reps. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, and E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls.

Last month it passed the Senate, sending it to the House.

No House vote has been scheduled, but Marsh said the bill is "in the cue" and likely will hit the House floor within 10 days.

The bill would ban suction dredging within wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in creeks and rivers deemed "essential salmon habitat." That effectively bans suction dredges in the Illinois River, the Rogue River and its tributaries below Lost Creek Lake and the Applegate River and its tributaries below Applegate Lake.

The bill also bans dredging in habitat of Pacific lampreys, which are also present in the Rogue Basin.

The bill would repeal and replace the current moratorium on suction-dredge mining in salmon habitat that is set to expire in 2021.

Bates pushed a nearly identical bill in the 2016 session that died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee and never had a full Senate vote, making this iteration of the bill the strongest supported effort.

Bates died in August of an apparent heart attack at age 71.

"There has been a lot of talk about Bates in the context of this bill," Marsh said.

Suction-dredge mining employs a floating vacuum to suck gravel from a stream bottom. Materials vacuumed by the dredge then go through a sluice to allow miners to strain out gold and other heavy metals, while 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 they have argued that no peer-reviewed study on suction dredging proves it ruins salmon habitat.

In 2013, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 838, which detailed new dredging restrictions, capped the number of dredging permits offered annually in Oregon and limited some of the times, locations and manner for how dredgers operate. It was designed to sunset at the end of 2015 to give the Legislature time to grapple with permanent rules, which never materialized.

That same bill included the current five-year dredging moratorium.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.