GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Oregon is tightening water quality restrictions on wilderness mining and suction gold dredges, which small-time miners use to glean flecks of gold from river bottoms long ago mined of their riches.
The proposed new rules from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality cut down the size and power of dredges, regulate the amount of silt generated, and keep heavy equipment out of the river. They also prohibit mining from generating muddiness in the water in federal wilderness areas, including one in southwestern Oregon where conservation groups have been trying to stop a gold mining resort.
The action stems from a court challenge from both miners and conservationists to the old rule, and neither group is happy with the outcome. Miners are appealing the Oregon Court of Appeals ruling.
James Buchal, a Portland lawyer representing miners in that case, said the restrictions are not justified by any evidence they will help fish. He adds that miners are already prohibited from using dredges in rivers when fish eggs are present.
"They have no rational basis for tightening this thing down whatsoever," Buchal said. "The only data since the last time around is confirming no effect whatsoever."
DEQ permits coordinator Beth Moore responded that turbidity is a proven problem for fish habitat.
Mark Riskedahl of Northwest Environmental Defense Center said DEQ is rushing to get out a permit in time for mining season, which starts in June, and has not considered the threat of dredges stirring up mercury deposits. He adds it is not likely to be enforced.
"It is essentially saying, 'Pay your $25 permit fee, and we'll agree to look the other way," Riskedahl said.
Moore responded that DEQ has to rely on permit holders to report problems, but that state police and other authorities can respond to complaints. She added that the permit prohibits adding mercury to the water to help gold processing, and requires miners to meet federal clean water standards.
The new rules would limit dredges to four-inch nozzles on the hoses used to suck up gravel from river bottoms, and the gasoline engines that power them to 16 horsepower. They would also require miners to be sure the silt plume in the water generated by the mining never gets longer than 300 feet, and prohibits bulldozers and backhoes from going in the water.
Recreational gold panners don't need a permit, but people using hand-operated gear, such as a rocker box, do. Miners also need to keep a log of their activities.
The permit prohibits any measurable turbidity in rivers in 12 federal wilderness areas established before 1972, including the Kalmiopsis Wilderness on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, where a Washington real estate developer is trying to create a gold mining resort.
The standard would effectively prohibit suction gold dredges from mining in those wilderness areas, said Annette Liebe, DEQ surface water quality manager. Panning for gold would still be allowed.
DEQ is taking public comments on the proposed permit until June 8, and plans to issue the permit by June 30.
The California Legislature last year stopped suction dredge mining until studies can be done on whether it harms salmon and other fish.
Since then Oregon has been bracing for a rush of miners from California. Gov. Ted Kulongoski and three Democrats from the Oregon Congressional delegation have asked the Obama administration to prohibit new claims on some rivers in southwestern Oregon, where conservation groups hope to create a national monument.
But the rush has shown no signs of developing. DEQ reports California accounts for only 89 of the 2029 active dredge permits they have on file. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service report there is regularly an increase in claims when the price of gold and the unemployment rate go up, but they are not seeing any spike this year.
Gold miner Tom Kichart said he does not anticipate a rush from California, because most creeks with good gold deposits already have claims on them, and areas that remain open do not have gold.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.