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A Mining Law Whose Time Has Passed -- Science or Propaganda?

January 18, 2012

The New York Times published an Op-Ed on January 11, 2012, that read like a hit-piece on mining in general and suction gold dredging in particular. The article was submitted by two fisheries scientists. It mixed factual information with conjecture and opinion in an attempt to sway readers to side with environmental extremists. As our readers are aware, It has been an ongoing battle to get accurate information published by the media and in front of the public.

Fortunately, retired EPA scientists Claudia Wise and Joseph Greene wrote an excellent response, though it remains to be seen if the New York Times will publish it. If they reject it, then we will publish it here.


1-25-12 UPDATE: The New York Times did not publish the rebuttal by Claudia Wise and Joseph Greene. Following is their response:

In response to A Mining Law Whose Time Has Passed, By ROBERT M. HUGHES and CAROL ANN WOODY, January 11, 2012.
We have known Bob Hughes for many years. He is a respectable scientist. However, he is clearly a “fish out of water” on small-scale suction dredge mining issues. I do not know what motivated him to write comments regarding hardrock mining and carelessly interjecting comments on the Chetco River and suction dredge mining. This juxtaposition of one size fits all information infers that small-scale suction dredge mining is killing fish and spilling chemicals into America’s waterways. This was very sloppy work and is unbefitting a published scientist. I also question why a theoretically unbiased fisheries scientist would leave the realm of science to write an op-ed piece for the New York Times. He and his co-author carelessly threw out data not related to suction dredge mining and used it as if the data could somehow be projected across years of improved mining techniques. 
We are retired USEPA scientists and have spent considerable time researching the potential effects of suction dredging on the environment. I have come to see that there are many benefits of suction dredging. Benefits of habitat restoration by suction dredge mining include, but are not limited to: loosening compacted or embedded gravels; cleaning spawning gravels of embedding sediment allowing for spawning in these otherwise unavailable reaches of waterways; creating deep hole resting and protection areas in streams (refugia) used by fish to get out of the current and in some cases cool down and avoid predation; improved population diversity; and food stirred up by dredging increases fish weight and health. 
I would love to know what peer-reviewed journal articles specifically written on the effects of suction dredge mining that Bob Hughes and Carol Woody used to form their opinion when they stated, “Suction dredges would vacuum up the river bottom searching for gold, muddying water and disrupting clean gravel that salmon need to spawn.” Why do they believe it is acceptable to blatantly disregard the published data that have demonstrated that the effects of small-scale suction dredging on the environment is less than significant and potentially beneficial to fish habitat. At the same time they refer to adverse effects from other forms (not modern suction dredging) of historic mining and use that data as factual information to smear small-scale suction dredge miners. This is just wrong, poor judgment, and bad scientific interpretation of published science regarding small-scale suction dredging.
Suction dredging in Oregon is regulated federally by the 1866 and 1872 Mining Laws and the appropriate Federal agency governing the lands where the mining will occur. It is also heavily regulated by State agencies.  Suction dredge rules are in place to ensure that clean water is protected. In our state, it is regulated by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. In-Water work times are governed by the Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife to ensure suction dredge mining does not occur during the fish’s sensitive early life stages. 
In most of the rivers and streams in the Western United States small-scale gold suction dredging occurs for less than 4-month out of each year.  No suction dredging occurs during spawning season as so many of these irrationally emotional written letters to the editor repeat time and again. Furthermore, small-scale suction dredging seldom occurs in locations on a river or stream where salmonids spawn. Salmonids prefer areas with water flow that would be sufficient to aerate the redds (nests). Suction dredgers work in low pressure areas of rivers and streams that salmonids would seldom select for spawning because of unsuitable water flow conditions.
We totally reject Dr. Hughes implied suggestion that chemicals would be used during a suction dredge operation. This is totally false and misleading.  This goes to the issue of Hughes and Woody improperly inserting comments about small-scale suction dredging while discussing the effects of large scale land mining. Let me say loudly and clearly for Dr. Hughes and his cohorts to hear...SUCTION DREDGING USES NO CHEMICALS IN THE PROCESS OF DREDGING.
A small-scale suction dredge does not generate mining waste! It simply lifts bottom material (sand and gravel usually less than 4-inches in diameter) in low-pressure areas of the waterway, flows it across a sluice box and returns the riverbed material not captured back into the waterway where it settles to the bottom. The sluicebox method is exactly the same as the hand boxes Dr. Hughes refers to as being less destructive and the outfall is the same class size that habitat restoration groups use to improve spawning gravels that are lacking adequate spawning material. The gold, other heavy metals, and trash such as lead weights used for fishing, nails, bolts, etc. are captured in the sluice box. Trash taken out of the water by dredgers is removed from the waterway and recycled. As is the trash left on shore by campers, fishermen, and picnickers.
Dr. Hughes also points to increased turbidity as a pollutant effecting fish. Turbidity although listed by USEPA as such is no more than a measurement of transmitted light from particles in the water that could be sediment or coloration from dissolved organic compounds. When I first started researching the effects of suction dredging on the environment I discussed this very issue of turbidity and its effect on fish with Dr. Hughes. His answer to me was that “fish do not care about turbidity” this sentiment is supported in the scientific literature as well.  Suction dredging is not performed with the intensity or the duration to cause harm to fish.
Claudia Wise
Suction Dredge Researcher
Physical Scientist, USEPA retired
Joseph Greene
Suction Dredge Researcher
Research Biologist, USEPA retired

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