Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

How They Created the Dredging Ban, a Tale of Deceipt

If You Own the Data You Can Do With It As You Please

April 2018

Environmental Impact Reports as Weapons

The picture to the right is a suction dredge. No, really. That's what the State of California and the US Geological Survey say a suction dredge is. Does it look like a dredge to you? No, we didn't think so. That's the contraption they used in the 2012 suction dredging study to determine a suction dredge was such a threat to human health the State needed to ban them permanently. The contraption shown is a recirculating tank, digging a hole on the bank, well above the waterline and sucking contaminated sediments into a settling pool to combine with water and particles. Not really what a suction dredge does, but if you set out to prove something, and you have bought and paid for the science, then there is a high probability you'll get the outcome you desire.

The use of science, scientists and statistics can be rather flexible. For those of who didn't go to Harvard University we're always a bit shocked to find out the scientists may have cheated just a smidge to obtain results somebody paid them to obtain. But, what happens when they do the science and the results don't quite come out the way they want? Well, you just make those pesky numbers come out the way you want. That's what happened in the 2012 EIR, and we explain how they did it in this article.

Number of Permitted Suction Dredgers

If we want to cheat someone of their rights the first thing we must do is diminish the number of people we're going to cheat. This is a standard tactic of the State and environmentalists. To claim the benefit of cheating someone outweighs the harm you'll do them. In the case of suction dredging the objective is to diminish the number of people who run dredges and to then make it appear they only do this for fun.

The State claims there were on average about 3,600 permitted dredgers since 1994. That's actually true. What happened in 1994? The new regulations were implemented after the 1994 EIR. This made commercial dredging economically infeasible for many. Before 1994 the average permits issued was about 8,400 per year. The below graph shows before and after the 1994 regulations.


Above. Suction dredge permits issued by year over time.

We don't argue the State can't selectively choose where to start their calculations, and 1994 seems like a good spot since that's the first time they prepared an EIR, but the use of only permitted dredgers after 1994 paints a different picture of how many dredgers there used to be, that is until the regulators showed up.

So why is the number of dredgers important? We have this thing in an environmental impact report called a baseline. The baseline is the conditions from which you measure change. If the baseline is 8,400 dredgers per year, then the effects of suction dredging are measured against 8,400 dredgers. If you halve that amount, and say only 3,500 dredgers is the average, then that becomes the baseline, and if 8,400 request permits, that's a doubling of permits, instead of average. Follow? By using one number instead of the other you establish what's normal, so now the higher number becomes exceptional and you can imagine how the environmentalists would wring their hands if there 8,400 dredgers next year. So what they do, selectively, is use a number which then becomes the new normal, then by saying we'll graciously issue up to 4,000 permits per year the majority of people consider that fair, but it's deceptive. Prior to 1994 there were double that number of dredgers and there is nothing to say that many won't need a permit again.

More Numbers

If you read Chapter 4.2 (Water Quality) of the SEIR you may have been led to believe these scientists sure had us beat, huh? Well, not so fast. It's a numbers game again. Lucky for you we're numbers kind of guys, so this became an interesting challenge for us.

Sometimes the smart guys get a little too arrogant. Tied up in all their charts and graphs they just figured us simple-minded dredgers, not having PhDs, wouldn't be able to follow all their parts per trillion calculations, and of course we'd never unravel the web they built.But we did.

The 3" Dredge Test

Did you hear about the 3" dredge test? No? The entire mercury section was based on a study we call the Fleck Report, it was authored in part by a US Geological Survey scientist named Dr. Charles Alpers (Dr. means he has a PhD). We just want to make sure you know he has a PhD. Since we don't have PhDs, he's way smarter than us, and you can put zero credibility in what we say and join the State in that belief.

The Fleck Report was built in three phases. In 2007 they conducted an actual test of a running suction dredge on the South Yuba River near Humbug Creek. In 2008 they returned to the same location and dug some holes in the bank. In 2009 they got around to measuring mercury from the holes they dug in the bank.

Now, if you and I were going to dredge on the South Yuba River near Humbug Creek we'd spend days packing in the parts of a dredge, but not the US Government. No expense is too great and they ferried the entire project in on helicopters. Nice.

They set up the dredge and had an experienced dredger running it in the middle of the river where Humbug Creek comes in. Some of you may know Humbug Creek is an outlet from Malakoff Diggins so a whole lot of mercury came down that creek and dumped into the South Yuba River. The scientists figure this would be one of the most contaminated locations in the State, so a great spot to try to prove their theory dredges are a health hazard.

So what'd they learn from the dredge test? Well, for one thing they found mercury levels downstream from the dredge were lower than upstream from the dredge. They also discovered a running suction dredge emits zero methylmercury (the harmful type), and they found the concentrates in the sluice box were pretty high in mercury which meant the sluice was doing its job, capturing gold and mercury.

They put some sensors in front of the dredge, right behind the dredge and downstream from the dredge. At worst, they found the suspended sediment from the dredge contained minute amounts of mercury. How minute? It was measured in parts per trillion. That's trillion with the big T.

Pretty good results for us huh? Yeah, that's what the smart guys thought too, so the results disappeared from the EIR. Poof, vanished. Not one word, not a single mention, just gone. Pretty cool huh?

Well, having not just fallen off the turnip truck we asked the smart guys why there was no mention of the dredge test in the EIR. They replied it was experimental and the results couldn't be "scaled up."

Huh, that sure sounds technical and all. Those smart guys must know what they're doing.

Well, what could be scaled up? Apparently the 2008 phase. Rather than use the results (or even mention them) they decided a much more suitable test of a dredge would be to...(wait for it)...well, to not dredge. So, in they came in helicopters again armed with new equipment consisting of shovels and home depot buckets. They dug a hole in the bank they called Pit #1. Hmm, not enough mercury in that pit, then they went higher on the bank, to a spot no dredge could ever work, unless the river was at flood stage, then of course you'd be dead, but no matter, they dug it. They called this one Pit #2. For those of you would be geologists, chemists, biologists, or whoever the hell studies mercury,would be interested in exactly how they dug it. Really, it is interesting, hang in there with us.

They dug, they screened using a mesh screen, then dumped it into a bucket. Then they dug a little deeper, screened and put it in a bucket. They continued this until they reached bedrock. Then they screened with a finer mesh and another finer mesh until they had nothing but very fine silt, which was assured of being thoroughly mixed with mercury.

Pit 2

Above. Does this look like a suction dredge to you? This is what they used.

Plastic Tank

Dang, they found the sediments of the very fine layer contained a lot of mercury, so much mercury only two dredges on the South Yuba River could contribute 10% of the annual mercury load. Twenty dredges and we could be pumping out more mercury than the river itself. Yup, we are dangerous, they sure proved that.

Oops, small problem with numbers. You just got to hate those numbers. Their calculations said in only 160 dredging hours we could contribute 10% of the natural mercury load in the river. Just 160 hours, frightening isn't it.

Except, the suction dredger survey reported there were 25,000 dredging hours on the South Yuba River in one year. We're not exactly math guys, I think we mentioned earlier we don't have PhDs so bear with us while we take off our shoes so we can do this math with our toes, because that's a big number, we think it's bigger than 160 hours, maybe by a lot.

So one would think maybe their theory would break down here. Ah, no such luck, you see they simply explained this away by saying we dredgers probably exaggerated (that means lied) about how much time we spent on the South Yuba River. Well, technically they wrote the "self reporting may have been skewed." Sure can't trust us, I'm glad we've got scientists we can trust. Oh, did we mention one other thing? Hard to keep track of all this, well it seems the actual mercury measurements at USGS gauging stations on the river didn't seem to agree with their theory. You see the mercury readings were way, way higher during winter storm events than they were all summer.

Well, we're not the smart guys so we don't expect you to believe us, so we just copied the graphs from the report and pasted them in below. It sure looks to us the lowest mercury readings of the year coincide with dredging season, but that's not what the experiment with the holes says it should.

So how can the smart guys explain that away, well let's think about it for a minute. If you were really clever (and did we mention they have PhDs) you might come up with a reason like dredgers only operate on weekends, and the gauge readings were only during the week. Doesn't that sound good? You see the reason the measurements aren't simply off the charts is we don't dredge during the week. Oh, one other thing, just to make sure they could prove we weren't dredging when the gauge readings were checked they said they only checked the readings in the morning when any dredgers would still be hanging out on the bank, drinking coffee trying to nurse off a hangover.

Let's summarize this section. They tested a real dredge, the test didn't come out like they thought. They made no mention or reference to the dredge test. Instead they dug a hole, high on the bank where no dredge could ever dredge, scraped and sifted the fine sediment mixing it with mercury and took it back to the lab.

With us so far?

So you might be wondering how the lab results went. We're not the smartest guys in the world, and the report is highly technical full of all kinds of confusing big words to us simple folk, so we'll just summarize what they did and leave all the long words out of it. They took the sediment, mixed it in beakers with water, stirred it up, heated it, and let it sit for a week. Then measured the mercury. Shockingly they found the mercury they dug from the hole attached to the fine sediment and stayed suspended in the water thus leading them to conclude they had perfectly simulated a dredge.

Works for us.

If The Fish Don't Get You The Bugs Will

The US Environmental Protection Agency, a small seldom heard of outfit, sets the standards for measuring the health of a river in regards to mercury. Bless their hearts, always looking out for the little guy. The standard is 3 parts per million of methylmercury as measured in fish tissue. That actually sounds fair, because no matter where you go in the US, if there's fish, you can measure the mercury. Good so far.

If you want to measure whether a river has unhealthy amounts of mercury you have to measure the amount of methylmercury in fish tissue, and of course they did in the SEIR.

Small problem. You see all the fish in gold dredging rivers (yes, we said all) measured well below the 3 parts per million standard indicating gold dredging rivers are actually quite clean from mercury.

That's good news isn't it? It depends. You see if you're trying to prove a dredge is polluting the rivers with mercury it doesn't quite fit. You can't use the EPA standard because it would show dredges don't actually pollute the rivers. As Al Gore would say, that's an inconvenient truth.

When the truth doesn't quite fit you need to search for another definition of the truth, and our hard working scientists are pretty good at finding alternate truths.

Because the fish showed no evidence of dredging induced levels of mercury they decided they would instead measure water bugs for mercury. Not quite the EPA standard, but any port in a storm we guess.

In 2008 BLM closed the South Yuba River to dredging, meaning no dredges were operating, but in 2007 dredges were operating so we had a dredging and no dredging year to compare. They measured bugs such as water striders and dragonflies in 2007, then measured them again in 2008. These small bugs have very small amounts of mercury, actually measured in parts per billion. They found bugs measured in 2007 had higher levels of mercury, than in 2008. At last,the smoking gun.

Really? Well, for one thing we had a spring flood in 2007 that was just about 20% higher than the spring flood in 2008. The SEIR reported this as about the same. Dang, we didn't win that one.

OK, so the bugs were 20% higher from one year to the next, we argued that would reflect natural variability. Of course the State said we really weren't qualified to challenge that, you see we don't have PhDs but those guys who did the test have PhDs. They really know what they're talking about.

Call us skeptics, but we didn't believe it and like a dog with a bone we wouldn't let it go so we did a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the US Geological Survey asking for all data related to biota (that means bugs) testing on the South Yuba River.

We hope you're sitting down reading this because we discovered there was a lot of other data on these bugs in the exact same spot, testing the exact same bugs. You see they said in the SEIR there was only two years of data on the bugs. That's it, sorry, no more, wish we had it.

It turns out data existed for 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2008 and they even did testing in 2012. You're cheating if you're looking at the graph before reading this. Pop Quiz. What do you think we (not them) found when we examined the additional data?

Gosh, there is natural variability year to year and the level of mercury in bugs increased from the time we stopped dredging in 2007 to the 2012 measurements. Yup, mercury levels in bugs are rising.

Now if we didn't know the guys with PhDs were actually looking out for us we might conclude they were trying to hide the data. Why do you suppose they would do that?


Above. Mercury levels in insects have gone up since the dredging ban.

The Bottom Line

If you own the scientists, the data and the report you can pretty much do whatever you please. It's a sorry statement our government behaves this way, but not surprising. Environmentalist pressure has been building on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for decades. Gradually they have turned from an organization whose goal was to manage the resources for hunting and fishing to an agency who's primary mission is now just environmental protection. They're just another set of enviro-cops. there doesn't appear to be a middle ground here. The environmentalists have an extreme position and they are willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goals, this includes cheating you out of your rights and your living by buying scientists who will give them the results they desire.

If they can do this to suction dredgers, they'll do it to anyone. Suction dredging may have been first on their "to do" list, but it's not the last entry on the list.