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Federal Court Upholds Oregon’s Right to Protect Water Quality and Fish Habitat

Court Finds That Restrictions on Mining Methods Are Clearly Within the State’s Authority

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For Immediate Release

March 25, 2016



Forrest English, Rogue Riverkeeper 541-261-2030
Roger Flynn, Western Mining Action Project 303-823-5738
Nick Cady, Cascadia Wildlands (541) 434-1463
Lori Ann Burd, Center for Biological Diversity 971-717-6405
Jake Crawford, Native Fish Society (720) 253-8485


Federal Court Upholds Oregon’s Right to Protect Water Quality and Fish Habitat

Court Finds That Restrictions on Mining Methods Are Clearly Within the State’s Authority


Medford, OR — This morning a federal court upheld an Oregon law restricting motorized gold mining in and along sensitive salmon streams. The District of Oregon court held that the State of Oregon has the right to regulate both state and federal land to protect water quality and fish habitat, and it has done so in a manner that does not conflict with federal law.

“The court correctly found that mining operations on federal land must comply with state laws enacted to protect public health and the environment,” noted Roger Flynn, with the Western Mining Action Project and one of the attorneys representing conservation and fishing groups that joined the case to help defend the Oregon law.  “This decision supports a growing effort in Western states to protect clean water and fisheries from mining pollution and wildlife habitat damage,” said Flynn.

At issue in the case is Oregon’s Senate Bill 838, passed  in 2013 to implement temporary restrictions on equipment such as suction dredges and other motorized mining equipment in and nearby habitat essential for salmon, and to protect water quality. The law went into effect this January and remains in effect through 2021. The 2013 law came about due to increasing concern throughout the state about the cumulative effects of these gold mining techniques on streams and rivers.

“With these protections Oregon has taken the first step towards addressing threats to our salmon runs and water quality from mining,” said Forrest English of Rogue Riverkeeper. “We look forward to sensible regulation that extends beyond 2021 and that ensures these values are protected for all future Oregonians, the court has made it clear that we can do that.”

Peer reviewed science shows that suction dredging can mobilize toxic mercury into rivers and streams, as well as reduce salmon spawning success due to alterations in habitat. Additionally in hot spots, such as the Umpqua and Rogue Rivers, the number of dredges has created conflicts with anglers and other recreationists.

“Oregonians can breathe a sigh of relief that many of our rivers and most sensitive salmon fisheries will be protected this summer from the toxic plumes of mercury that suction dredge mining releases,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Gold miners brought a lawsuit against the State of Oregon last October alleging that federal laws denied Oregon the right to protect environmental resources within the state. Environmental groups and commercial fishing interests including Rogue Riverkeeper, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Oregon Coast Alliance, Cascadia Wildlands, Native Fish Society and the Center for Biological Diversity intervened on behalf of the state and are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center and Western Mining Action Project.

“We are very pleased the Court has clarified that the State of Oregon has the power to protect our cherished rivers from destructive suction-dredge mining, especially the famous Rogue River and its tributaries -- one of the most important salmon rivers in Oregon,” said Cameron La Follette with Oregon Coast Alliance. “State environmental laws are a crucial means of protecting the public's investment in salmon habitat restoration in our public waterways.”

"We are incredibly encouraged that the Court made the common sense decision to permit Oregon to regulate harmful mining practices in some of Oregon's most cherished waterways," said Nick Cady with Cascadia Wildlands.  "Oregonians have a right to protect the things they value, including clean water and salmon." 

“This decision will help keep Oregon’s iconic wild salmon healthy for future generations,” said Jake Crawford with Native Fish Society. “It bolsters similar protections in California and Idaho, while giving Washington a path forward for protecting wild salmon and water quality from suction dredge mining.”

The court stated in it’s decision the following. "The Court agrees with the plaintiffs that the practice of mining has a long and cherished history in the State of Oregon, and a protected place in law. However, the Court can find no indication that such protection prevents the State of Oregon from temporarily banning the use of motorized instream equipment as a legitimate way to protect water quality and fish habitat. The Mining Act and other federal regulations do not express an intent to preempt state environmental regulations affecting mining claims on federal land. Senate Bill 838 does not directly conflict with federal law, nor does it stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress because, under the law, “the ‘valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States’ in Oregon remain ‘free and open’ to mineral exploitation and development by means other than the use of motorized equipment."

The full court order can be viewed here.



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