In the spring of 2010, we urged our members to comment on the Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) new draft permit for regulating suction dredge mining throughout Oregon (the "700PM permit"). A suction dredge is a gasoline-powered vacuum attached to a floating sluice box. Miners use the vacuum to suck up the bottom of streams and rivers and run sediment through the sluice to filter out gold and then dump the sediment back into the stream.
Fishermen and clean water advocates are concerned about the negative effects suction dredge mining can have on fish and aquatic habitat quality. This mining practice kills fish eggs and offspring thereby reducing fish spawning success, deposits fine sediment on stream bottoms, mobilizes toxic heavy metals and harms macro-invertebrate communities that are an essential part of the aquatic food web.
Because of these negative impacts, HCPC joined a coalition of other conservation groups in January 2011 to challenge DEQ's final 700PM permit in state court for violating state and federal water quality laws. Over the past several months, however, our coalition has been working to secure a settlement agreement with DEQ that would allow us to dismiss our lawsuit by requiring the agency to re-open the discussion about this controversial mining practice to the public.
Last week we reached such an agreement. If approved by the Court, our settlement would require DEQ to robustly examine ways to revise the 700PM permit to ensure compliance with water quality laws and adequately protect fish and their habitat. Unfortunately, the Eastern Oregon Miners' Association, which intervened as a party to the lawsuit, filed questionable motions that are delaying and threaten to interfere with the Court's approval of our agreement. We're hopeful these motions can be resolved shortly so we can continue moving forward.
Oregon’s statewide Clean Water Act permits are usually renewed on a five-year basis. The next version of the suction dredging permit should be finalized by July 2014. The settlement agreement outlines a stakeholder process beginning in December 2012 to initiate the next permit renewal. Based on the settlement, the permit renewal process will consider prohibited areas based on water pollution, fish habitat and specially designated areas, whether to require annual reports and the cost of this activity to the state, among other items.
The number of suction dredges in Oregon has increased dramatically in recent years. Permits from the Department of State Lands (DSL) have increased nearly 300% from 656 in 2007 to 2,209 in 2011. DEQ permit registrations in the last two years also show that nearly 30% of suction dredge miners are coming from other states to mine Oregon’s streams and rivers. This likely includes a sizable number of out-of-state miners that used to go to California to dredge before our neighboring state put a dredging moratorium in place until 2016. This trend is a serious threat to our streams, rivers and fisheries.
Plaintiffs in this case were represented by the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center ("PEAC"). HCPC's co-plaintiffs include the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Rogue Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Oregon Coast Alliance and Oregon Wild.