FONSI not Fonzie


By Bob Ferris

"…not once during the many hours of public testimony was the committee presented with scientific evidence that the practice of small-scale suction dredge mining is damaging to fish populations or the environment." Oregon State Senator Olsen in an op-ed in Oregon Business 
During the recent hearing on suction dredging in Salem—where I counted no fewer than four scientists presenting evidence of fish and environmental impacts—much was made about this issue of the California analyses that produced several conditional Findings of No Significant Impact–FONSIs in agency speak sounding just like the leather jacketed icon of Happy Days’ fame.  
Unfortunately, in the rationalization, distillation and spin game often played by the miners, their “science” advisors, and supporters this conveniently morphs from “recreational suction dredging will have no significant adverse impacts on species and habitats with special legal status if the following conditions are met” into the above statement by Senator Olsen.  To understand this you need to go to the FONSI documents and read the source material.  I made this point during my testimony, but clearly this was part of the science that Senator Olsen did not hear or was not willing to research.
Criteria for Determining Significance
For the purposes of this analysis, the Proposed Program [suction dredging] would result in a significant impact to biological resources if it would meet one or more of the following criteria:
Criterion A: Have a substantial adverse effect, either directly or through habitat modifications, on any species identified as a candidate, sensitive, or special status species in local or regional plans, policies, or regulations, or by the CDFG, USFWS, or NMFS; 
Criterion B: Have a substantial adverse effect on any riparian habitat or other sensitive natural community identified in local or regional plans, policies, regulations or by CDFG, USFWS, or NMFS;
Criterion C: Have a substantial adverse effect on federally protected wetlands as defined by Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (including, but not limited to, marsh, vernal pool, coastal, etc.) through direct removal, filling, hydrological interruption, or other means; or 
Criterion D: Interfere substantially with the movement of any native resident or migratory fish or wildlife species or with established native resident or migratory wildlife corridors, or impede the use of native wildlife nursery sites.
So we learn from the above criteria that “significance” in this context was limited to a narrow spectrum of special class species and habitats rather than all fish and environmental impacts.  So any statements that claim that suction dredging has no significant impacts on fish or the environment based on this draft document is grossly overstating the findings and misrepresenting the information presented in this report.  
And once we dig deeper into the individual findings on this narrow list of species and habitats, we find that it is conditional on a multitude of factors.  If someone reads through the document they will find more than 20 provisions designed to mitigate or minimize the documented or scientifically supported inferences of impacts associated with the activity of suction dredge mining.  But sometimes even this extensive menu of provisions was not enough to prevent impacts or risk to these sensitive species and habitats.  
Off the top of my head I do not know how many of these 20-plus provisions exist or are applicable and sufficient in Oregon.  This is one of the main reasons for this moratorium which is made even more urgent and prudent in the face of rapidly increasing permits as well as increasing complaints and violations.
In addition to these FONSI determinations being dependent on adherence to all or some of the above provisions, there are also some additional restrictions on waters for specific species that need to be met as well. In the California draft analysis they handled this by establishing an (A-H) classification system which included the following classifications among others:
(1) Class A: No dredging permitted at any time.
(2) Class B: Open to dredging from July 1 through August 31.
(3) Class C: Open to dredging from June 1 through September 30.
(4) Class D: Open to dredging from July 1 through January 31.
For vulnerable species that are put most at risk by suction dredging like salmonids—salmon, steelhead and trout—the minimum closure for waterways containing those fish starts at Class 3 or 4, but that is not always considered sufficient.  For Chinook salmon all waterways containing those fish were designated Class A and closed to dredging all year round—no exceptions.  For Coho salmon the requirements varied from Class A-C depending upon both the condition and the function of those stretches of rivers or streams.  With Coho special attention were given to thermal refugia—those deep, cooler pools where fish tend to congregate to escape the warmer and sometimes fatal water temperatures of summer.  
Useful knowledge on this scale in Oregon needs to be established during the proposed moratorium along with criteria and mechanisms for making adjustments should impacts arise.  Regulation in the absence of monitoring and standards is folly.  
Nothing in the above or in this oft cited FONSI—when examined closely—should lead anyone to believe that small-scale suction dredging is without consequence or risk to fish or the environment.  As to Senator Olsen not hearing scientific evidence, I am not sure how to respond.  He was in the room when Jack Williams—a PhD-level fisheries biologist enumerated his concerns and observations.  Likewise, he was there when the representative from the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society distilled their formal comments and findings.   I know that the miners claim that they “have the science” on this—if there was any science not heard at this hearing it was that “science” that was silent.