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Dredgers Get the Lead Out

Underwater miners help birds, improve fish habitat, remove toxic metals

Ask any suction dredge gold miner and they will tell you they not only remove mercury, but lead fishing weights and old shotgun lead. Ask any suction dredge gold miner and they will tell you they not only remove mercury, but lead fishing weights and old shotgun lead.

By: Brad Jones, GPAA Managing Editor

From Gold Prospectors Association of America

In the minds of the non-prospecting public, the term “dredging” seems to conjure up images of wanton destruction. To those who are unaware of modern suction dredge mining techniques, it just sounds bad and may even create the image in the mind’s eye of huge wooden crates with giant metal bucketshaped scoops known as bucket-line dredges that were seen on the rivers of Alaska in the late 1800s.

Today’s suction dredges, which are minuscule by comparison, do not scrape and scour the entire bottom of a streambed with shovels, but are designed for one or two miners to vacuum up sand and gravels that contain gold from a specific area. Modern dredges made for small-scale mining are compact floating platforms with an underwater suction hose, usually between four and eight inches in diameter.

Although they have small gas-powered engines, they are self-contained and do not pollute the water like the exhaust from an outboard motor on a small fishing boat would. Exhaust from a dredge is emitted into the air, not the water.

Ask any suction dredge gold miner and they will tell you they not only remove mercury, but lead fishing weights and old shotgun lead.

Studies also show dredging improves fish habitat, and some environmental groups have applied for government funding to dredge to improve salmon spawning refugia, while at the same time condemning miners for doing the same thing for free. Their reward is the gold they find and a day outdoors often spent with friends and family. And, don’t for even one minute be so naive as to think that these environmental do-gooders aren’t recovering the gold for themselves, too.

Components of a typical suction dredge

Negative image

So, why have suction dredgers been so negatively portrayed by the media and environmentalists?

According to Public Lands for the People President Jerry Hobbs, the bad image has more to do with the public’s ignorance of modern mining techniques and an emotional reaction to the terms “dredging” and “mining” than it does with actual suction dredging. The common and widely accepted misconception that dredgers kill fish eggs is, well, a red herring. Dredging during spawning season is illegal, so the myth that dredgers harm fish eggs simply defies logic and doesn’t hold water. Ironically, all fishermen, other than those who are catch-and-release anglers, are killing the fish, so it’s a pot-calling-thekettle- black scenario.

While the GPAA supports outdoors activities such as hunting and fishing, miners are disappointed with the lack of understanding from some anglers. Furthermore, studies show that dredging actually benefits fish habitat and no scientific study has ever concluded that dredging is harmful to fish or fish habitat. In fact, dredging helps to improve fish habitat. Still, many opponents blindly swallow what they’ve been fed by environmentalist groups and the pro-green mainstream media — hook, line and sinker.

Even though most miners are responsible stewards of the land and care every bit about the fish as much as the next person, environmentalists have targeted small-scale mining and other outdoor activities such as fishing, hunting, off-roading and rafting. So far, these outdoor groups seem unable to unite against the “green giant” and seem content to point fingers at one another rather than fighting back against radical environmentalism.

Hobbs warned that miners are like the canary in the coal mine — the first line of defense in the public’s right to access and extract natural resources from the land. Unlike sports fishing and h u n t i n g , mining has been recognized as the best use of the land for more than 140 years. Congress has accorded prospectors the right to access and mine on public lands under the Mining Law of 1872. For this reason, Hobbs has called on hunters and fishermen to stand behind gold prospectors to keep the backroads and public lands open and form a unitedfront against the seemingly countless attacks by environmental groups working in collusion with government agencies to strip miners of their rights. If miners lose their rights to mine, the hunters will lose their licenses to hunt and anglers will lose theirs to fish, Hobbs said.

Public Lands for the People President Jerry Hobbs has often appealed to outdoor groups to support mining rights as a way to keep public lands open to not only miners, but other outdoors groups and the public at large. Yet, we face increasingly more land grabs and an onslaught of road closures, regulations and restrictions. Environmental extremists have become powerful, well-financed propaganda machines and are winning the hearts and minds war at the cost of your freedom and economic prosperity, despite no scientific evidence that small-scale mining has a significant impact on the environment. Miners, in particular, are getting shafted.

“We’re the smallest user group and the easiest to pick on,” Hobbs said. “We’re the ugly kid on the block and they want to kick our butts.”

‘Mine’ over matter

Hobbs mocks the stupidity of an urban culture that has lost touch with its roots and no longer understands the importance of man’s connection to nature and primary industries such as agriculture, timber and mining that allow cities to exist in the first place.

While the green lobby touts “sustainable” development, these primary industries are what sustain the urban lifestyle.

“If it wasn’t for mining, they wouldn’t have anything. They would still be living on a dirt trail wearing sheepskins or living in caves and palm frond huts,” he said, laughing.

It is important that miners educate the public on the necessity of harvesting minerals from the earth because we depend on these natural resources to support our modern lifestyles.

Of course, all the materials used to build computers, cellphones, cars, aircraft, TVs and virtually every modern appliance are mined in one way or another. Sand and gravel are mined to build roads. Ironically, mining has generated the metals used in the tools and materials to construct solar panels and wind turbines that the environmentalists like to tout as “clean energy,” while condemning mining. And, most computers, TVs, and cellphones contain small amounts of gold.

“There was a lot of truth to what George Massie said, that everything is either grown or mined,” Hobbs said. “If it wasn’t for mining, they would have nothing.”

When a news reporter once challenged Hobbs on that concept, he asked the reporter, “Where else does wealth originate from if not from something harvested or something mined?”

The reporter thought for a minute and replied, “Computers!”

Hobbs asked the next logical question: “Where do you think your computer came from?” The reporter hung up on him.

‘Nuff said.

Thick as lead

Dredgers often find lead in streams because lead is like gold; it’s heavy and gravitates to the lowest point as it is gradually washed downstream.

Waldo Mining District President Tom Kitchar said that in some heavily fished parts of the Rogue River in Oregon it is not uncommon to find enough lead to fill a large coffee can, about 15 pounds, in a single day of dredging.

Besides lead, dredgers also remove tons of mercury from America’s rivers and streams, yet the environmentalists still want to ban dredging.

When it comes to lead, sports fishermen and hunters should support dredgers who clean the lead from rivers and streams, Hobbs said.

“Lead crystallizes, breaks down, becomes ionic and eventually part of the water system,” Hobbs said. “They should want us to do that and they don’t. We’re mitigating their use and the hunters’ use.”

When it comes to removing mercury, environmentalists seem to be stuck more than 150 years in the past. Though they never fail to mention that the old-time gold miners polluted the streams with mercury, which was used to separate gold from black sands, they almost never mention that today’s suction dredgers are removing it. They also fail to mention that much of the mercury that lies at the bottoms of our lakes and streambeds originates from industrial pollution and is also naturally occurring from the mineral cinnabar, which contains mercury.

“They are so backward on the mercury issue, it’s not even funny,” Hobbs said.

A runaway train

Why do the government agencies and environmental groups ignore the science that seems as plain as day?

“I’ll give you two reasons,” Hobbs said. “First, they want to lock up this land and second is that the environmentalists and the legislators want to control everyone and justify their damned jobs with these ridiculous laws.”

The bottom line, according to Hobbs, is there’s a lot of money involved and every study concludes there needs to be more studies in order to stoke the engine of the gravy train — government grants for scientific research.

Every study concludes “could be, might be, possibly,” said Hobbs, adding the so-called scientific reports are deliberately left wishy-washy and open-ended so the scientists and environmental groups can continue to receive more of your tax dollars for more studies. In other words, they don’t want a conclusion because it could halt the government gravy train in its tracks.

A lead balloon

Claudia Wise, a scientist who formerly worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, is a member of the Gold Prospectors Association of America and an avid suction dredge miner based in Oregon.

On most dredging excursions, Wise attests she not only finds gold, but usually collects lead weights, lost fishing line and lures left in the streams, among other man-made debris.

“Any time you are removing stuff that’s not supposed to be there, it’s beneficial. Let’s get it all out!” she said. “It’s not only lead; we take out car parts and all kinds of odd stuff out of the water.”

But for some unknown reason, the environmentalists want to shun miners. Any attempt the small-scale mining community makes to help the environment seems to go over like a lead balloon.

Joe Greene, who retired from the EPA in 2002, is a research biologist with 30 years of experience nationally and internationally. He is also a GPAA member, a suction dredge miner and a friend and colleague of Wise.

When it comes to lead, Greene has pulled his fair share of it from the bottom of streams.

“I have a friend who went down and took 13 pounds of fishing weight lead out of one hole in just a couple of days of dredging. I’ve gotten plenty of lead shot, too,” he said.

As with the mass hysteria over mercury, Greene wonders if all the hype over lead toxicity is warranted.

“On the lead issue, I like taking it out. Personally, I don’t think it’s as much of a hazard as people like to make it out to be. I’ve never seen anything saying that any lead weights are being dissolved and becoming toxic. The only thing I can see is that when you get into shallower water, it could be a problem with waterfowl ingesting it. I’m just pleased that we are helping to get the lead out.”

Dredging improves fish habitat

While working for the EPA, Greene was torn as both a gold prospector and a biologist working for the huge environmental agency because he had been told by his colleagues that dredging is bad for fish and the environment.

As Greene began researching the issue, he could find no evidence to substantiate what many of his colleagues believed about dredging. In all cases, all the studies he researched concluded that dredging had “less than significant” impact on the environment. Yet, scientists at the EPA perpetuated the myth that dredging is somehow harmful to fish.

“They are just brainwashed. I’ve even heard miners say it. It’s frustrating to me,” Greene said. “The old saying about a lie told often enough becomes the truth is exactly what’s been happening to us in small-scale mining.”

Miners who drywash, highbank or simply pan for gold and have never used a suction dredge may not be convinced that suction dredging benefits fish habitat because they don’t understand the science and that dredging loosens the compacted gravels fish need to spawn. It also creates refugia.

Wise agrees. There is no doubt that dredging loosens the gravels and creates “dredge holes” or man-made refugia.

“If it is three feet deep, it’s considered refugia, which is a depression in the river bottom that is under the main currents. That is where fish prefer to spawn — cooler water, lots of times at the mouth of a tributary,” Wise said.

Turbidity and riparian areas

Other points opponents of dredging like to throw into the argument are claims that miners cause damage to riparian areas and turbidity in the water.

“Damage to riparian areas is not a problem. It’s less than significant,” Greene said.

Wise concurs. Rainstorms, spring runoff from snow melt and floods cause much more turbidity and damage to riparian areas than anything else and yet the fish have survived and thrived. Cattle watering at the edge of a waterway can also wreak havoc on riparian areas, trampling the nests of waterbirds and chewing up the wet ground with their hooves.

“It’s a mud bath all the way up the sides and destroys the vegetation along the banks; I’ve seen it. There are huge herds of elk that do the same thing in and out of the water, naturally. What are they going to do, kill all the elk?”

Well, in some cases, government agencies have indeed ordered the elk to be slaughtered, Wise said.

“I’m serious; they killed a whole bunch of elk in Colorado. They say they were harming the environment and instead of sending hunters in to hunt the elk, they sent in government contractors,” she said. “They killed a whole herd of elk on an island outside of California, because they were killing what they said were endangered species fauna — an endangered plant. They are picking and choosing what is the natural environment.”

Any damage done by small-scale miners to riparian areas is insignificant,” Wise said. “Highbankers are working in the wooded areas up above the banks. It’s usually one person shoveling. How much damage can you do? Highbankers usually work within the wooded area of a river or creek. In the winter, that whole area is going to be underwater.”


  • Lead fishing weights have been around since the ancient Egyptians 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.

  • The greatest danger posed by lead fishing tackle is neither to fish nor humans, but to birds.

  • The effect of lead shot on the environment has been studied for some time. Large die-offs of waterfowl due to lead poisoning were first reported in the late 1800s and continued through the next century, eventually prompting the 1991 Federal ban on the use of lead shot in hunting.

  • The impact of lead fishing tackle has not been as well studied, perhaps due to the belief that the enormous amount of lead shot put into the environment by hunters far outweighed any impact from fishing. According to research by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published in the mid-1980s, about 3,000 tons of lead shot were discharged by hunters into the environment annually.

  • 2,700 tons of lead sinkers made per year in the United States and 400-550 tons are made in Canada each year. If the figures are accurate, we’re talking about perhaps 3,000 tons of lead per year entering the waterways of the U.S. and Canada.

For more information about the science and politics of dredging, Google "Dredging doesn’t harm fish, experts say” or search the GPAA website: www.goldprospectors.org

Brad Jones is the Managing Editor/Communications Director for the Gold Prospectors Association of America. He can be reached at bjones@goldprospectors.org.

Article as featured in the Pick & Shovel Gazette August/September edition. To get your copy of the Pick & Shovel Gazette you must be a GPAA member. Click here to join today!

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