The Prez Sez:

MARCH 2013

MAJOR NEW RULING: L.A. Co. Flood Dist. vs. Nat. Res. Defense Council, Inc., et al, 568 U.S._____(2013).

            The U.S. Supreme Court rendered an important 9-0 opinion on January 8, 2013 in the above referenced case, pregnant with major implications for the outcome of suction dredge litigation and legislation here in California.  This is so because a suction dredge merely transfers water between two parts of the same water body.  In the instant case the Ninth Circuit held that the Clean Water Act (CWA) was violated when polluted water flowed from concrete lined portions of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers into unlined portions of the same rivers.  The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit in a unanimous opinion by noting that in a prior 2004 opinion the Supreme Court held that the, “…transfer of polluted water between ‘two parts of the same water body’ does not constitute a discharge of pollutants under the CWA.”

     The Supreme Court accepted a 2nd Circuit analogy that, "…[if] one takes a ladle of soup from a pot, one has not added soup or anything else to the pot."

     This opinion, though forceful, is not dispositive regarding the operation of a suction dredge because the technical issue before the Supreme Court was narrow; specifically it involved a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Such permits apply to municipalities and are different from a suction dredge permit. However, the logic appears applicable to a suction dredge analysis.

     If the Ninth Circuit ruling were to stand, then outrageous hypotheticals would seem to follow. For example, it could be argued that the catch and release of a single fish, including a member of an endangered species, would be a violation of the CWA! After all, the California Water Board itself has measured the presence of methyl mercury levels contained in all California fish. Thus, the release of a living fish back into a river would constitute a prima facie illegal "discharge" of toxic material because the fish (and its toxic contents) is being "added" to the river. But the new Supreme Court opinion seems to say this is not so, since the fish merely would be placed back into the same river from whence it came without any additional thing being added that was not already there.

     Hooray! For once some sanity seems to be restored to what otherwise presents as a convoluted maze of legal mumbo jumbo that has been used to trample on the rights of suction dredge miners.

Martin Milas, PCSC President


 Book Review:  Extreme Prospector by Dave McCracken


          Although all 512 pages are sandwiched beneath a single cover, these really are two books when dissected by a reviewer’s subject matter scalpels.   The one is biographical and reflective of the book’s title.  The other is political and gets our heads screwed into the way Dave orders his world, i.e. the first is historic and traces some of the ways Dave’s personal virtues, vices and values have colored his life while the second is philosophic, boldly painted with brushstrokes of social and economic ideals.  The essence of Extreme Prospector best is capsulated by Jack London’s statement that, “The function of man is to live, not to exist.”


          Dave’s real life stories are presented through a series of whitewater rides and class five adventures to places where dangers constantly lurk.  Some may be tempted to view these as the swaggering of a daredevil adrenalin junkie.  But that would be overly simplistic.   It would overlook some disclosures of Dave’s innermost tender spots and the insecurities of a romantic heart.   For example, Dave devotes a chapter to the first passionate love of this young Navy SEAL’s life, Suzy Wong – a girl he met while awaiting deployment orders in Hong Kong during the Vietnam War -- asking the reader:


“Have you ever fallen in love so deeply that nothing else seems as important … It’s a heart-palpitating mental and emotional place where you experience profound loneliness when the other person is not present … a hapless condition which instills a nagging fear that … she might suddenly realize you are not as great as she first thought you were.”


          Make no mistake; this book does not get bogged in the touchy-feely swamps of an over-sensitive heart.  Dave wastes no time taking us with him on his lifelong quest for gold and treasure to far flung venues in Africa, Southeast Asia and at the business end of suction dredge nozzle right here in the USA.  It is almost with tongue in cheek that Dave makes the following understatement, “As you will see in the stories which follow, there are dangers involved anytime you are working under water.”  DUH!!  Let me just say that this book is crammed with “full panic mode” vignettes that alone justify further examination.


          But Dave McCracken also is a thinker.  He has a way of capsulating seemingly complex ideas.  For example, he reduces his view of the primary failing of our current governmental approach to mining in an underlying principle of the “potentially severe consequence”, pointing out that, “Since absolutes are unattainable, there is no end of things that ‘we must take precautions against’.”


          The strident tone employed by Dave McCracken undoubtedly has been given sharp tongue by the downward spiral of his own Happy Camp community, thirty or more years in the making.   Spotted owls, Coho salmon, Karuk Indians, methyl mercury – all of these and a thousand other causes have contributed cut by cut to a gradual withering of traditional rural economic pursuits.  Dave’s own economic destiny is tightly bound to the fortunes of small-scale gold mining.  In this regard, Dave himself has become a lightning rod of controversy.  Many hail him as a hero – especially those he introduced to the art and mechanics of small scale suction dredging.  But he also is reviled by extreme environmentalists and even by those within the insular suction dredge community itself (some of these latter blame Dave for triggering the current government moratorium by bringing too many “recreational” converts to the blessings of suction dredging – as if only those who make placer mining a living should be entitled to float their dredges on public rivers).


            So who is Dave McCracken anyway?  Get the book and find out.  It can be purchased in hard or soft cover through the New 49ers web site.  It also can be downloaded from to a Kindle.


Martin Milas, PCSC President



My Dry Washing Point Of View:


          I am asked occasionally for my opinion in regard to whether I prefer a blower style dry washer to a puffer.  The answer, of course, is that it depends on a number of factors.  A more significant question, in my book, is: “How come two operators of identical dry washers sometimes get very different results?”  Let’s address underlying issues.


            The mechanics of a blower make it inherently faster at processing dirt.   This is so because the blower runs (creates separation) constantly, whereas a puffer only processes during 50% of its running time (while on the compression stroke -- visualize a constantly moving “conveyor belt” of tails moving down the riffle tray of a blower; contrast this with a conveyor belt that jerks along only during the compression stroke, i.e., only during the 50% of the time when the bellows puff a gust of air through the riffle tray cloth).  Thus, when it comes to sheer volume the blower has a distinct advantage (assuming the operator’s shovel is capable of matching its capacity) because it is constantly processing.


            The mechanics of a puffer give it an edge when it comes to “holding” and “concentrating” the values.  This is so because unlike a blower, a puffer both blows and sucks.  Thus, on the intake stroke a puffer sucks air back down through the riffle tray cloth (re-concentrating and holding the greater mass of material in place).  By alternating between puffing and sucking a puffer can achieve a higher quality of momentary separation than a blower, i.e., during the compression stroke the sudden gush of air literally makes the entire mass “jump” fairly high -- higher than the constant airflow of a blower.  This sudden jump thus creates greater (higher quality) distance between the individual particles, thus enabling the heavier particles (which do not get blown so high) a better chance of concentrating behind the riffles (the lighter particles get blown higher and some are thrown right over the next riffle so the heavier ones encounter less friction as the entire mass descends and these heavies tend to wind up on the cloth and tucked beneath a riffle regardless of the particle’s shape).  In a simple blower the only dynamics are a constant upward airflow and downward gravitational pull.   Thus, it is more likely that some particles (especially flat, thin ones or clay balls that have values embedded) may “glide” or “ride” over the tops of the riffles and end up in the tailing pile.  More complex blowers spin an offset weighted fan that provides a rhythmic shaking action to the riffle tray, enhancing such a dry washer’s ability to concentrate and hold on to values.


          Equally relevant to successful dry washing, however, is the competence and focus of the operator.  Just as the driver of a car must change gears, accelerate, brake or swerve when conditions demand, so must the dry washer operator make adjustments as needed.  For example, both with blowers and puffers the volume of material being fed into the riffle tray after passing through the grizzly should regularly be monitored and adjusted to avoid overloading.  The horizontal (side to side) level of the riffle tray is a constant concern because allowing the tray to slant off to one side can result in values pouring over the riffle corners.  The riffle tray should not be jostled unduly or values may be freed.  The blower hose should not be allowed to twist the riffle tray off level (this will happen if either the header or tailing piles are unattended such that their weight and mass encroach against the blower hose as the piles build up).  The tailing pile (the stuff that empties out of the bottom end of the riffle tray after having been processed) must regularly be flattened out otherwise, if allowed to build up too high, it will press against the mouth of the riffle tray and absorb the stirring action of the counterweighted fan.  The descending angle (vertical drop) of the riffle tray should be adjusted to maximize concentration of values (e.g., steeper for powder dry dirt, flatter for slightly damp material).  The riffle tray should be emptied way more often if working with heavy black sand or ironstone-laden dirt.


            Thus, it can be seen that the skills and attention of the operator can greatly influence the heft of one’s poke at the end of the day regardless whether the dry washer is a blower or a puffer.  My favorite is a battery-powered puffer – but only because I hate the fumes and noise disturbance emitted by a gasoline engine -- especially the stinky, irritating, high pitched whine of a two-cycle.   Additionally, my puffer’s relatively quiet and Zen-like “ker-chunk, ker-chunk” soothing rhythm has a way of settling my soul and keeping me focused.


Martin Milas, PCSC President

(DECEMBER - 2012)
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