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Debate over river dredging nears climax in Legislature Dredgers fear for livelihood, defend mining practices


AMY GITTELSOHN THE TRINITY JOURNAL Alan Jones inspects his sluice on the Trinity River. Jones says a state bill could imperil his gold mining efforts.

The work is grueling, but Alan Jones loves it.

He spends hours underwater in the Trinity River using a large vacuum to suck up sand, gravel and rock which is sent through a sluice box mounted on a floating platform. Most of the material continues through the sluice and out the other side. But on a good day, panning reveals pieces of gold that sank to the bottom of the sluice.

This is suction dredge mining, a physically demanding activity that requires underwater breathing apparatus.

Jones, 60, of Big Flat learned the work from his father and figures he's been at it for the better part of 40 years.

"This is not just a trivial pursuit for me," said Jones, who has a mining claim on the Trinity River near Hell Hole.

Jones is speaking out against Senate Bill 670, which would place a moratorium on all suction dredge mining in the state until the state Department of Fish and Game completes a study on the effects of the activity on fish. The bill has passed the state Senate and two committees in the Assembly, and may go to the Assembly floor as early as this Thursday.

AMY GITTELSOHN THE TRINITY JOURNAL Alan Jones works his suction dredger in the Trinity River last week. The debate over whether suction dredging hurts or helps the environment rages on and may see a vote in the California Assembly this week.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have placed increased restrictions on suction mining and raised fees for suction dredging permits. About 3,000 permits are issued annually statewide.

Saying that the governor saw through the spin of special interest groups, Jones said, "My livelihood and my lifestyle are in jeopardy if SB 670 passes."

Although he took a few years off to work a remodeling business in Redding, Jones said mining is now his sole income and he has about $20,000 invested in the equipment.

While acknowledging that historic gold mining hurt the environment, Jones says modern-day gold dredging is not harmful.

"We're not the eco-terrorists the special interest groups or those that have their own agendas portray us to be," said Jones, who noted that mining regulations are already in place to limit dredge size and protect spawning fish and their eggs. He cited a list of things he says dredgers do to improve fish habitat.

A state test cited by people on both sides of the issue found that suction dredging captures 98 percent of the harmful mercury from old mining practices from the riverbed, but 2 percent escapes the sluice box. The researchers and opponents of suction dredging said the "flouring" of that disturbed mercury back in the water is harmful, while Jones and other miners ask why they are focusing that small fraction.

"What they focus on was the 2 percent that went back into the river," he said.

Jones said he keeps the mercury he collects for use in the process of retorting to extract very fine gold flakes, and he has taken about a half pound of mercury out of the river over the last year, as well as harmful lead.

It's true that salmon are hurting and sediments have collected in spawning gravels, he said, but that is because of the dams and low water releases. "It's not us."

In fact, he said the suction dredges remove sediment so compacted it is like cement, restoring gravels for fish to spawn in.

There may be miners who are not as respectful as they should be of the environment, he said, but there are also fishermen who leave behind garbage.

Jones said miners statewide are affected by a conflict in the Klamath River area between the Karuk Tribe and a prospecting club, the New 49'ers, both based in Happy Camp. The mining club has bought claims on 60 miles along the Klamath and its tributaries in the heart of the tribe's territory, he said, and there have been conflicts.

"It's not about eels and eggs," he said. "I'm sure the Indians have a reason to be upset, but I think they should handle it in their own front yard."
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