PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Environmentalists say Oregon is letting gold miners abuse the environment by using suction dredging of riverbeds to further degrade waters that are already in bad shape. Miners use giant hoses to suck up stream beds in their search for gold. The Northwest Environmental Defense Center says a permit issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality violates the Clean Water Act.
The new suction dredging permit allows miners to use hoses 4 to 6 inches in diameter, with 16 to 30 horsepower engines, to vacuum up the bottoms of streams.
Suction dredging increases sedimentation and turbidity and reconfigures the riverbed, destroying fish habitat and raising a stream’s temperature, according to the complaint, which includes the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center as co-plaintiff.
The groups say that suction mining destroys gravel beds that fish, including salmon, use as spawning grounds.
The plaintiffs say they have documented the environmental harm of suction dredging at sites around the state. They say the damage is exacerbated because some miners, in online posts, assert that they do not have to comply with permits.
The 2010 permit does not require Oregon streambed miners to adequately report on or monitor their activities in waters that are already impaired, in violation of the Clean Water Act, according to the complaint.
Represented by the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, the groups want the court to set aside the 2010 permit.
The plaintiffs also challenged permits issued in 1997 and 2005. The first challenge resulted in a court order telling the state’s environmental department to incorporate nondegradation policies under the Clean Water Act.
For the second challenge, at the appellate level, the Eastern Oregon Mining Association’s involvement resulted in a ruling that the state environmental department has no permitting authority for suction dredging, as the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers retains jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.
This second challenge made it to the Oregon Supreme Court before being mooted in light of the environmental department’s issuance of the new permit.