Those who visit Alaska’s “Bristol Bay” report it dry and arable – where gold, animals and seafood riches abound – making much of this famed “Bering Sea Land Bridge” one of the nation’s current treasure troves of natural resources. However, Republicans want to commercialize the “Bay” prompting the “Frontline” program to report “Treasure Hunt: The Battle Over Alaska’s Mega Mine” tonight at 10 p.m. ET on PBS. In turn, this July 24 first airing of this investigative report is aimed at informing the American public about “a growing battle in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, which hosts the world’s last, great sockeye salmon fishery; and mineral deposits worth up to $500 billion.”
Frontline probes GOP plan to mine Bristol Bay
Alaska’s beautiful “Bristol Bay” got its name from a 1778 voyage of the British navigator and explorer, Captain James Cook who named the area “in honor of the Admiral Earl of Bristol” in England. Flash forward to 2012, and the July 24 “Frontline” TV program probes why there are plans to endanger this natural ecosystem for the sake of “gold” and other riches that Republicans have a hankering to mine.
Bristol Bay is located in the eastern-most arm of the Bering Sea in Southwest Alaska. The Bay is 400 km or 250 miles long and 180 miles wide at its mouth, according to a high school geology text book that also notes how a number of rivers flow into the bay; including the Cinder, Egegik, Igushik, Kvichak, Meshik, Nushagak, Naknek, Togiak and Ugashik.
While many Americans who live in the “lower 48,” may not be aware of the “threat to Bristol Bay,” states this July 24 “Frontline” TV program, The New York Times featured a page one editorial titled “A Threat to Bristol Bay” on June 4 that explained how “the possibility that a giant gold-and-copper mine might someday be built near the headwaters that feed Bristol Bay in Alaska, one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world, is cause for alarm. A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency reinforces those fears.”
The report, issued on May 18, is a draft assessment of the “potential impacts” that large-scale mining could have on the intricate network of lakes, spawning streams and wetlands that make up the Bristol Bay ecosystem, the heart of a $2.2 billion regional fishing industry.
In turn, the Times stated that “beyond that is the threat of catastrophic failure of the huge man-made reservoirs known as ‘tailing ponds’ where mining companies typically store toxic acids, metals and other mining wastes. If that happens, spawning streams would be widely polluted and future salmon harvests sharply diminished. The consortium, the mine’s main investor, says it can extract minerals safely and that the project could provide 1,000 permanent jobs. Its proposal deserves careful review. But just about every factor involved — the location of the mine, the mining industry’s poor environmental record, the value of the fishery that could be harmed - suggests the risks are too high.”
Why the GOP wants to mine Bristol Bay
Tonight’s “Frontline” TV program spotlights Rick Halford – a longtime GOP leader in the Alaska state legislature - who calls himself the “ideal redneck Republican” who is making a “Faustian bargain” in return for cooper and gold worth “an estimated half a trillion dollars;” while Frontline’s investigation also found that “state and federal regulators risk poisoning what scientists describe as the last best place on earth for millions of wild salmon - and the risk from toxic mine waste would last forever.”
“If God were testing us, he couldn’t have found a more challenging place,” said Halford, who helped write Alaska’s industry-friendly mining laws when he was president of the state senate.
In turn, the door is now open for “global mining giant Anglo-American and its Canadian partner, Northern Dynasty, want to dig one of the world’s largest open-pit mines - up to three miles wide and thousands of feet deep. They want to do it in the near-pristine watershed of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery,” states tonight’s Frontline TV documentary.
Moreover, the program found that: “No mine of this size - with huge dams for mine waste that would stand taller than the Washington Monument - has ever been developed in such an ecologically sensitive region.”
In addition, the proposal has triggered “partisan infighting that reaches from the Alaskan tundra to the halls of Congress, where House Republicans accuse the Obama administration of plotting a preemptive move to kill the mine.”
Also, as explained by The New York Times editorial from this past June, the Environmental Protection Agency described the Bristol Bay fishery as “a significant resource of global conservation value.” The agency noted that more than 14,000 people have salmon-based jobs in the region that sustainably generate $480 million a year. The report also warned that during the lifetime of the Pebble Mine accidental spills of waste are likely to pollute some waterways, creating the potential for killing salmon and poisoning their habitat for many years.
Killing Bristol’s salmon fishing
While Frontline notes that the GOP-backed “executives at the Pebble Limited Partnership, a company owned in equal parts by Northern Dynasty and Anglo-American, say they have the know-how to operate an open-pit mine in the Bristol Bay region for a hundred years or more without significant harm to salmon fishing;” others don’t believe this to be true, or don’t want to risk killing salmon to prove it.
“I really do think you can do both,” said John Shively, chief executive of Pebble, whose slogan is “Fish Come First.”
When copper and gold are exhausted, Shively told “Frontline” that his company “will have the resources and the technology to make certain that significant amounts of toxic waste never leak into surrounding wetlands, streams, rivers and lakes. Minor leaks that harm some salmon are possible but controllable, he said, adding that it would be “impossible” to destroy the salmon in Bristol Bay.”
Again, many people don’t believe this to be true, adds the Frontline documentary.
For instance, “Frontline” explained how protecting salmon in perpetuity from mining waste “is a corporate pledge that Native Alaskan fishermen find impossible to believe. They point out that the Pebble site occupies a soggy saddle of land between the salmon-rich Nushagak and Kivichak rivers, which flow through the heart of the most productive sockeye watershed on earth. The site is also subject to extreme weather and major earthquakes.”
At the same time, Jason Metrokin, president of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), the region’s largest native-owned business, told “Frontline” that “leaks of toxic mine waste are inevitable, as is harm to the fishery. The corporation’s 9,000 shareholders have voted overwhelmingly against Pebble, calling it a threat to their economy and culture. Metrokin says it is nonsensical for mining companies to claim ‘fish come first.’”
This environmentalist then shot back when asked if Republicans would protect the salmon and environment. “Excuse me,” Metrokin said. “The size, the location of the deposit, and the type would have an impact.”
Robert Redford fighting GOP on Bristol mining
The stakes are huge, and thus even the famed environmental activist and actor Robert Redford is taking aim at defeating GOP plans to mine Bristol Bay, adds the Frontline story.
For example, the Frontline program points to how locals up in Alaska “worry about the mine, where extensive exploration and drilling has been going on for more than a decade, echoes far beyond southwest Alaska. Major environmental groups have mobilized against it, with the backing of eminent salmon scientists and celebrities like Robert Redford. More than 50 major jewelers worldwide, including Tiffany & Co., Zales and Boucheron, have promised not to use gold that comes from Pebble. Chefs, restaurants and seafood distributors across the United States have also come out against the mine.”
Moreover, Frontline stated how “scientists who have studied the long-term biological consequences of hard rock mining are dumbstruck by the prospect of an open-pit mine in an ecosystem where each summer 30 to 40 million salmon return from the Pacific – and where commercial and sport fishermen catch half of them without reducing the historic abundance of fish.”
“It is essentially a goose laying golden eggs,” said Tom Quinn, a University of Washington fish biologist who has studied and camped in the watershed for 25 years.
As background for concerned viewers, Frontline also pointed to “elsewhere in North America and across the world, when major mining development has occurred in proximity to a salmon or trout watershed, there has been a consistent pattern of pollution that erodes the health of fish or kills them outright, according to Quinn and many other researchers.
In turn, the documentary noted how “even the best mining technology, engineers and ecologists say, periodically fails to prevent spills and leaks. After mines foul streams and rivers, cleaning up the mess and reviving salmon runs have proven to be costly, complicated and slow. Fish biologists say that the damage usually turns out to be irreversible given the persistent toxicity of the pollutants, the chronic lack of government money for remediation and the history of mining companies in ducking cleanup obligations.”
Mining Bristol Bay is not risk free
“There really is no such thing as a ‘no risk’ mine,” said Nicole Vieira, a Colorado State University researcher who studies the effects of mining on rivers in the Rocky Mountain West.
While Frontline stated that “the federal government is well aware of the risks,” it has been obligated by the Endangered Species Act “to spend billions of dollars on salmon restoration in Western rivers;" there's real danger to this fragile ecosystem. "At best, taxpayer spending has helped return only a small fraction of the historic fish runs in what had once been great salmon highways.”
Also, the EPA says it has the authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the Pebble Mine from being built. It is now in the process of determining whether it should use that power.
In turn, both the agency’s report – and the possibility that the Obama administration might stop the mine before the state permitting process formally begins – “has caused angry pushback from the state of Alaska and from Republicans in Congress,” added the Frontline documentary.
Republicans leading the charge to mine Bristol Bay
“Leading the charge in Washington is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight. In a letter to the EPA in May, he said the agency appears to be considering “an unprecedented and legally questionable” attempt “to preemptively veto permits for the Pebble Project.” By moving to stop the mine before other state and federal agencies examine the project, Issa said the EPA is “arriving at a conclusion without all the facts.”
Frontline also noted how Issa’s letter “demands that the agency disclose internal documents related to its assessments of the mine and reveal names of employees who worked on the review.”
In response, the EPA wrote a letter to Issa saying it has not decided if it will stop the Pebble Mine but that it does have the authority to do so, if it determines that discharge from the mine would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on a fishery.
So far, “Frontline” stated that “the Pebble Partnership has spent about $450 million on exploratory drilling, permit preparations and public relations. If the mine moves forward into production, it expects to spend another $7 billion or more on bringing electricity to the site, as well as on the construction of a pipeline, a road and earthen dams for waste storage. The money would benefit many large and small companies across Alaska.”
Americans need more copper, added the Frontline documentary while explaining: “It is a vital building block in the gadget-crazed culture and in devices that reduce consumption of fossil fuels. Hybrid cars contain nearly twice as much copper as conventional cars. Wind turbines require tons of it. So does the power grid, which is expanding rapidly to hook up wind farms, solar panels and geothermal plants. In China and across the developing world, the need for copper is growing even faster than it is in the United States.”
“Copper is sort of like the stealth mineral because people don’t think about it,” said Shively, the CEO at Pebble. He says there is a “total disconnect” in the environmental community between its appetite for whiz-bang, energy-saving technology and its loathing for open-pit mining. “If you want to go to a green technology,” Shively said, “something has to come out of the ground to build these things. And that’s just the way it is.”
GOP plans for Bristol Bay endanger salmon
In Seattle, Nathaniel Scholz, a toxicologist for the Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has supervised a decade of research into the effects of copper on salmon. His research found that extremely low concentrations of copper (15 to 50 parts per billion) could damage a salmon’s sense of smell.
Scholz told Frontline how “a salmon needs to smell to avoid predators and spawn successfully. As a baby fish, it gathers olfactory memories of the streams, rivers and lakes where it was born and raised. Those memories enable it to find its way home from the ocean.”
“Fish that can’t smell get eaten,” Scholz said. They also get lost on their way home to spawn. If they do get back to the streams where they were born, a balky sense of smell can disrupt spawning behavior.
Also, “copper spills that are so small as to be virtually undetectable in the Bristol Bay watershed,” Scholz said, could harm the salmon fishery. Even salmon with a good sense of smell would probably refuse to swim up their home rivers if copper levels are elevated, he told “Frontline” for this July 24 TV documentary that’s aired on PBS.
Image source of the shore of Bristol Bay, Alaska, where tens of millions of juvenile sockeye salmon come of age each year; while “Frontline’s” July 24 TV program explains that just “15 miles downstream from the salmon beds is the proposed Pebble Mine,” being backed by Republicans to get an estimated “4500 billion” in gold and other minerals out of the Bay without knowing how much damage this mine will do to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and the Bay’s delicate ecosystem. Photo courtesy Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Bay