Sucking Up Riverbeds–Is suction dredging ruining your favorite trout stream?
By Ted Williams Fly Rod and Reel Magazine Spring 2013
“Part of the [suction dredgers’] pitch seems to be that mucking up rivers flowing through public lands is an honest-to-goodness, Don’t-Tread-On-Me, all-American right,” submits Cascadia Wildlands director Bob Ferris. “Poppycock . . . . Suction dredging is not a ‘right’ nor is mucking up the water for the rest of us—particularly in streams and rivers that run though public lands or hold imperiled species such as coho and Chinook salmon or bull trout.”
Feeding the flow of what Ferris calls “poppycock” are retired EPA scientists Joe Greene and Claudia Wise, both officers in the mining support group Millennium Diggers and both self-proclaimed experts on the effects of suction dredging. According to Ferris, they don’t initially disclose their passion for dredging or their mining affiliations. He chides the more loquacious Greene for quoting “laughable” conclusions from a nearly 75-year-old water-chemistry study and making public statements that are “deceptive, unprofessional in nature, and politically and personally motivated.”
Nothing I have read by Greene and Wise has led me to disagree with Ferris’s assessment of their credibility. Still, they were the spokespeople the dredgers turned to after the Karuk tribe filed a 2005 complaint in Superior Court of Alameda County against the California Department of Fish and Game, for allowing suction dredgers to damage the habitat of listed fish in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon rivers and specified tributaries.
My access point to my career in the conservation field came originally from fish. I caught my first trout on the Eel River in northern California while my family was on their way to visit the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. As we were on our way north, my mother grudgingly allowed me to fish for 15 minutes—no more. And on my premier cast with my older sister’s telescoping metal pole and an ancient JC Higgins reel, I felt that first electronic jolt that changed my life. (Yes, this was a salmon egg catch, but I did not know any better at the time.)
That memory is golden to me and the thought of anyone taking any action that would rob someone of a similar moment rankles me no end. That’s why the notion of some yahoo sticking a 4”-6” inch motor-driven suction hose into the hard bottom or gravel of a trout or salmon bearing stream and muddying the water literally makes me just a little angry. And that ire only rises a little higher when I learn that these “modern 49ers” seeking flakes of gold in the silt they are spraying around are being egged on and legislatively supported by some modern day equivalent of snake oil salesmen hitting the KA-CHING button with each $8900 suction dredge they sell.
It’s an old game where the “pick and pan” salespeople make the real money preying on the suggestible and greedy. And part of the pitch seems to be that mucking up rivers flowing through public lands is an honest-to-goodness, Don’t-Trend-On-Me, All-American right. Poppycock! Suction dredging sucks and the sooner we all gravitate to that point of view, the better for all concerned. (Okay so the dredge dealers will not be happy, but I can live with that quite comfortably, Thank You.)
Doing the “gold fever” math: Proven placer claims yield in the vicinity of 0.025 ounces per yard of material processed or roughly $45 per yard. Recreational suction dredgers can move up to 25 cubic yards per year before being classified as commercial operations. So if they are lucky and gold prices hold they can gross $1125 annually in Oregon. When the cost of the machine and gear as well as other costs such as permitting, trailer registration, gas, and maintenance are factored in it becomes crystal clear that the “gold strike” here is for the equipment sellers rather than these hopefully prospectors.
Suction dredging is not a “right” nor is mucking up the water for the rest of us—particularly in streams and rivers that run though public lands or hold imperiled species such as Coho and Chinook salmon or bull trout. We and many others who have worked hard to clean up and protect waterways throughout Cascadia see only one solution to this issue: An all-out ban on suction dredging in the salmon-bearing water systems of Cascadia. The practice is banned in California and restricted in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho. We think it is high time that all of us who would like to see the return of vibrant salmon and steelhead speak up on this issue with one voice.
Please check out our suction dredging and high banking page, sign our petition to the governors of Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Idaho, and pass this all along to others
Pacific salmon are a little like seagoing golden retrievers. Only instead of drool-slimed tennis balls, they retrieve nutrients lost from the land and gobbled up by an assortment of plankton (free-floaters) and nekton (swimmers) in the oceanic water column. Their dogged inland migration over millennia and suicidal sacrifice for their offspring in large part helped make the Northwest’s coastal river valleys the agricultural powerhouses enjoyed by humans for tens of thousands of years.
Yet as perfect and as beneficial as this salmon nutrient retrieval machine was, we changed it in a handful of generations. We essentially brought it down to its trembling pectoral fins in a good portion of its historic eastern Pacific range. How? We threw grit in its gears every time we removed the filtering function of riparian vegetation and increased the silt-sliding imperviousness of our urban hardscapes. We shattered the great engine’s virtual pistons with each dam we built and every tributary we compromised with corrugated culvert. And we caused it further insults by mistaking its most essential inner-workings as a refuse removal system for all that was deemed waste and no longer needed.
As we accelerated growth during the last century, the system that loyally supported agriculture and forestry through the ages ironically became the victim of both and their associated economic growth. And we in our nearly infinite folly and hubris cast off the bounty of this perpetual and low maintenance larder through our poor stewardship. Somehow, we thought it easier to work harder and get a lesser quality result.
The whole tragic process has left us poorer by far from the loss of effortless and nearly perpetual fertility and a dependable food source to the diminished recreation opportunities and the indescribable, Chinook-sized hole left in our collective heart. Think I am full of hooey on this last point? Look at any stretch of creek or river and think how that waterway is changed in a fleeting second by a leaping Coho or running Humpy. I don’t care if you have the fishing gene or not, doesn’t everyone’s heart pump harder with each electric tail flip and silver flash observed?
Is this Pacific salmon situation isolated? Certainly not! John McPhee wrote with a sense of awe and loss about the economic and social importance of the once plentiful Chesapeake shad in his book The Founding Fish. Perhaps a chocolate Labrador in this analogy, the fish that made early America economically possible was cast aside much like the Pacific salmon in favor of more destructive and short-sided enterprises. We see books like McPhee’s or even Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and seem not to learn or embrace their lessons. And my friend and environmental writer Tom Horton often writes and talks about the march of disappearing fish through time and how each successive generation seems to settle for fewer fish and ultimately a little less wildness.
What if we suddenly got smart? What if we suddenly realized that the economic and social benefits of restoring and keeping Pacific salmon viable and vibrant everywhere within their historic range meant more to us than exported timber, parking lots, fish farms, dams, recreational gold mining, and over-fertilized and pesticide-bathed crops? What if we decided to be the first generation to reverse this awful fish trend and capitalize on the positive example being set on the Elwha? We at Cascadia Wildlands think it is time we pursued this path with vigor and purpose. Long live the King (salmon)—everywhere!
Yogi Berra made the above quote when he watched Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the early 1960s. I feel the same way—absent the elation—as I watch this coal debate unfold here in Eugene just as it did in Bellingham two years ago. It is roughly all the same except for some of the details. I have lived this before and it all came rushing back to me as I read the recent letter from the Port of Coos Bay director—David Koch—to the City of Eugene and the Project Mainstay Economic Impact Assessment. (Since it is all the same but the players, amounts, and locale, I will take the liberty of linking to Bellingham-based writings that have addressed many of these same issues.)
As I look at these two documents recently offered in support of the Coos Bay coal terminal project, I find myself scratching my head in the same spots I did two years ago when similar documents were released in Bellingham. None of these documents are compelling. I find it puzzling, for instance, that the port director—David Koch—feels compelled to brag about the 158 tons of carbon dioxide taken out of the air in the last 10 months by their railroad operations when arguing for a project that will eventually place more than 15 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere upwind from us. Then you add in the CO2 from the 800 unit trains traveling to and from Wyoming and Montana (1600 annual trips for mile and half long trains). And add to that the bulk carriers sailing to Korea and back that burn bunker fuel. (Bunker fuel represents the dregs of the fuel refining process with up to 5 percent sulfur content its use likely erases any global sulfur budget benefits of Asia using our lower sulfur coal.)
In this equation, it is important to note that bulk carriers of the size we are talking about burn about 4 tons of diesel fuel a day when in port. With roughly one hundred of them going in and out of Coos Bay annually to haul this coal, that 158 ton bit of green house gas (GHG) progress would get erased sometime during the first month of operations. Did Mr. Koch think we were going to be so distracted by this good news and that we would not see the bigger picture bad news implications of this endeavor? This seems a little someone seeking your thanks for brushing a mosquito off your arm, while not telling you that there is a rabid dog standing behind you.
With the massive dredging of the Coos Bay estuary and more than 150 water crossings between Eugene and this proposed coal terminal along the Coos Bay Railway, protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystem function is an important consideration to those of us who want to see salmon and steelhead runs improve. Doing a little research we find that coal trains dump considerable coal dust all along their routes and every coal terminal in North America has a coal dust control problem that results in air, soil, and water pollution (please see Coal Dust is Complicated). Some are certainly worse than others such as Seward, Alaska and Mobile, Alabama, but even the best and most responsible such as Robert’s Bank near Vancouver, British Columbia expel dust plumes that travel miles from their facilities and create oxygen-poor “dead zones” in the surrounding waters. You can watch the decks of the ships at Robert's Bank after they are loaded and see them change from white to black. When these legitimate concerns are raised, industry will retort that all that coal chunks and dust are lost near the mines so take a moment and watch this Seattle piece on coal coming off the trains and apply it to Eugene, Coos Bay and the 150 water crossings on the CBR or look at the photos just posted by our friends at Columbia Riverkeepers on facebook.
When looking at the risk offered by the above, it is important to look at the players involved. The Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) is a Korean government-controlled company (51%) that has a spotty environmental record globally. It is interesting that Mr. Koch calls out KEPCO’s in-progress facility as remarkable. I agree, but I find it remarkable that any facility that espouses renewables would lead with coal which is arguably the dirtiest and most costly fuel imaginable.
Mitsui is another of the development partners. This Japanese company has its fingers in a lot of pots in the US and globally including oil exploration through their MOEX subsidiary. MOEX was just fined $90 million dollars by the US EPA for their part in the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Now I may be somewhat of a cautionary person when it comes to water and aquatic ecosystems, but I think foreign companies involved in the “Gusher in the Gulf” should be treated to a well-deserved time out when it comes to any future projects that might jeopardize our country’s waterways and fisheries.
I am happy that the Economic Impact Assesment being shipped around by the Port and other project proponents is marked “draft” because the figures seem a bit inflated and the scope wildly inappropriate. For one thing the job density of 16.5 jobs per million metric tons (MMT) of coal shipped is roughly twice what economist projected for the coal terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham (8.8 jobs per MMT) which was judged by many to be high. With both using “industry standard” projections I can understand a 10 percent or so difference, but 100 percent variance seems highly unlikely. Jobs should certainly be one of the core considerations, but we really need to look at net jobs not just jobs created in Coos County or on the rail line because the implications of the rail traffic and the shipping of underpriced raw material to a competing economy need to be examined fully (please see This Country Used to Make Things and I Heard the Lonesome Whistle Call).
Moreover, this Economic Impact Assessment seems seriously mislabeled because it really only looks at a narrow band of economic benefits covering a small geographic area. Where are the figures for the impact that this level of train traffic with have on business activity including the rail shipment of other goods in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana? How will this impact housing prices all along the route? In Los Angeles a long term study found that doubling freight traffic reduced housing prices about $2500.
And then we get into the whole issue of human health and diesel particulates. Be prepared because once the local doctors express concerns about the health impacts ranging from childhood asthma to cancer of these particulates—particularly the nano-particles that are less than one billionth of a meter—the misinformation will fly about trains and GHGs as well as fireplace chimneys and particulates by weight. Don’t be fooled, it is all PR deception (please see Deception Pass).
There is much, much more to be said and prepared for but as I hope all of us are getting ready to go to the Coal Hard Truth Forum this evening, I will end with a final point. Mr. Koch opens with the classic argument of condemning the City Council for considering passing an anti-coal train resolution in the absence of facts. Wow, that is a bold statement and absolutely un-true. There is a mountain of existing information out there that indicates that jeopardizing human health and local economic activity and environmental integrity through these heavily subsidized coal export ventures makes no sense. This is not a premature decision by any means and it is a decision being made by potentially impacted communities in Washington, Oregon, and Montana—what is not prudent is taking a supportive position with slim details provided by the Port (please see Of Garlic and Rail Traffic). We need leaders on this not folks who are being lead to harmful conclusions.