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Conservation, Fishing Groups Move to Join Lawsuit to Protect Oregon From Gold Mining Impacts

Groups Defend Restrictions on Mining Practices Harmful to Salmon, Waterways, Wildlife

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For Immediate Release, November 20, 2015

Contacts: 
Forrest English, Rogue Riverkeeper, (541) 261-2030
Nick Cady, Cascadia Wildlands, (314) 482-3746
Jonathan Evans, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 844-7118
Glen Spain, PCFFA, (541) 689-2000

Conservation, Fishing Groups Move to Join Lawsuit to Protect Oregon From Gold Mining Impacts

Groups Defend Restrictions on Mining Practices Harmful to Salmon, Waterways, Wildlife

MEDFORD, Ore.— To defend an Oregon law designed to protect wildlife from damaging gold mining along waterways, a broad coalition of groups moved to intervene today in a lawsuit by mining interests challenging the restrictions. Passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2013, Senate Bill 838 placed restrictions on gold mining using suction dredges and other motorized equipment along streams to prevent harmful impacts to salmon and develop a permitting process to better protect Oregon’s waterways. Miners are now alleging that the state law conflicts with federal laws passed in the 1800s to encourage westward expansion.

“We are defending the state of Oregon and the choice by its residents to protect iconic waterways and scenic rivers from damaging mining practices,” said Nick Cady, legal director of Cascadia Wildlands. “Asserting there is a ‘right to mine’ granted by an antiquated law from the 1800s is simply ridiculous.”

Suction dredge mining involves the use of a large, gas-powered vacuum to suck up gravel on the bottom of rivers in search of gold flakes. This practice targets gravel beds critical to salmon spawning and reproduction, as well as damaging water quality and river hydrology. Motorized mining along streams clears riparian vegetation important for keeping streams cool for salmon survival, increases erosion, damages streamside wetlands and alters the floodplain.

“Suction dredge mining pollutes our waterways with toxic mercury, clouds streams with sediment, hurts endangered fish and wildlife and destroys cultural resources,” said Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Oregonians have the right to safeguard the health of their families, waterways and wildlife from this damaging, outdated form of mining.”

The bill does not ban motorized mining practices but simply puts in place temporary restrictions to protect areas critical to salmon and bull trout reproduction. These restrictions buy the state time to develop a regulatory regime for the relatively new mining practice.

“Motorized mining in and along our sensitive salmon streams is harmful to fish and water quality,” said Forrest English with Rogue Riverkeeper. “It’s high time to put the brakes on these methods of mining until long term solutions are developed that protect clean water and habitat for salmon.”

Concerns over this mining practice were heightened when miners began targeting iconic and high-use Oregon waterways and their tributaries.  

“Several south coast salmon-rich rivers are under threat from heavy suction-dredge mining every summer, especially the world-famous Rogue River, the Chetco River and their tributaries,” said Cameron La Follette with Oregon Coast Alliance. “The salmon economy is critically important to local communities on the south coast such as Brookings and Gold Beach. Oregon must restrict suction dredging to protect salmon habitat, water quality and community livelihood."

There are also concerns by numerous commercial and recreational organizations that suction dredge and other motorized mining practices are disruptive and harmful to fishing, an industry that generates approximately $780 million a year in spending in Oregon.  

“Letting a handful of people suck up whole river bottoms looking for flecks of gold makes no economic sense, since it destroys salmon habitat and just puts more commercial fishing families out of work,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, a major commercial fishing industry association that is also intervening. “Senate Bill 838’s passage by the legislature simply recognized that it is not a good idea for the state of Oregon to continue to use taxpayer money to heavily subsidize the destruction of our rivers.”

The groups moving to intervene are also looking to protect the public’s investment in salmon restoration. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been expended to restore streams damaged by past mining and industrial practices. The use of suction dredges and motorized mining equipment has been undoing many of these efforts.

“Allowing gas-powered dredges and heavy equipment to damage our delicate salmon streams directly undermines the $254 million investment Oregonians have made in salmon habitat restoration,” said Mark Sherwood with the Native Fish Society. “Oregonians and wild salmon deserve better.”  

The intervening organizations include Rogue Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Institute for Fisheries, the Center for Biological Diversity, Oregon Coast Alliance, Native Fish Society and Cascadia Wildlands. They are represented by Pete Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center and Roger Flynn of Western Mining Action Project.

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