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tv   Frontline  PBS  May 1, 2013 5:00am-6:01am PDT

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>> this will be the biggest environmental fight of this century for alaska. >> tonight ofrontline, an epic battle for one of the richest places on earth. >> bristol bay is off the charts for wild salmon. it is the largest copper and gold resource in north america. >> preserve it or mine it? >> we would be changing a fish and wildlife system into a mining district. >> can one of the richest gold and copper mines on the planet coexist with one of the world's great salmon runs? >> pebble mine is a huge project, but it's not just on any river. it's two of the most productive salmon rivers on the planet. >> tonifrontline investigates... >> it will change everything. >> "alaska gold."
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>> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. and by reva and david logan, committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by tfrontline journalism fund, with grants from jon and jo ann hagler on behalf of the jon l. hagler foundation, and scott nathan and laura debonis.
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(birds squawking) >> narrator: it's opening day of the fishing season in bristol bay, alaska. >> i would describe it as pretty close to christmas morning. >> it's just intense, man. it's the beginning of june and you know the fish are coming. you can feel it in the air. i mean, that electricity is in the air. >> narrator: every year, these waters are home to the greatest sockeye salmon fishery on earth. >> in the beginning, the first opening, driving out there-- i've been at this 30-plus years-- i'm going, "why am i still doing this?" and then, after about an hour, we pull the nets in. and as soon as that king comes over the roller, all those
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shadows of doubts go away. and then you realize, here we go again. there's the presents. there's the gold. >> bristol bay is this just phenomenal resource. it's a salmon factory that doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet anymore. >> bristol bay is off the charts for wild salmon production. >> it's the largest sockeye salmon producing system in the world. it's produced up to 60 million fish returning from a single spawning event. >> a wall of fish comes at you. and when i say a wall of fish, that is a wall of fish when they hit bristol bay. they come by the millions. they'll just sink net after net right in front of you. you never going to... you can't catch them all. >> got another one!
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he's a fishing fool out there. >> the amazing thing about salmon is that we can actually catch about half of them sustainably. it's difficult to put an economic value on a resource that can be mined forever. >> narrator: the salmon fishery in bristol bay is set in an almost pristine ecosystem unique in the world. its water are fed by a vast network of rivers, lakes and wetlands, threaded through the mountains and tundra of southwestern alaska. every season, salmon leave the sea where they've spent much of their lives, and push their way upstream, intent on making it to the place they once came from. >> sockeye here.
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>> one of the wonderful things about salmon is they go back to their natal streams so faithfully. something like 90% of them tend to go back to the stream that they spawned in. >> go spawn, we'll see your kids in three years. that's what it's all about right there. >> bristol bay's one of the last really big runs of salmon that we have. it's the last real big river full of red fish. >> narrator: pacific salmon, like sockeye, go through an extraordinary change in color and shape as they close in on their spawning grounds. they gather at the entrances to smaller streams. this is where they will lay their eggs and then die, leaving their offspring to begin the cycle again. >> it's so hard to grasp the fact that we are in the 21st century in the united states of america and you're still seeing this-- a fully functional ecosystem, phenomenal pulses of life moving up these rivers.
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>> wild fish are important because they are beautiful. it's a beautiful species and they are a miracle of nature. but they're important because they are also the food source for everything from bears to caddisflies to eagles to killer whales. i mean, that's what feeds the food webs of the north pacific, wild salmon protein, pumped out of the ocean up into the rivers, delivered almost perfectly to every corner of the watershed. >> narrator: bristol bay's great sockeye salmon run is concentrated in several major river systems. each year, millions of fish swim up rivers like the nushagak or the kvichak to get to their spawning streams. it's here, north of lake iliamna, between two branches of that pristine watershed, that an extraordinary discovery has been made. for decades, several mining companies have been exploring the area, drilling core samples and mapping an area called the pebble deposit.
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this was in 2007. >> what we're doing here is in-fill drilling in pebble east. meaning we're on the known deposit area. they are putting the rods all the way down, as deep as 5,000 feet. so the drill bit can cut the core, and then they'll bring it out in these rods. >> we're now in a stage, a very early stage, we're still exploring the deposit. it's a very large deposit. it's the largest contained gold and contained copper concentration in all of north america. >> it's just incredible. i mean, what an opportunity for a young geologists right out of school to be working on one of the largest copper deposits in the world. it's almost like this is truncating up against this guy. i mean, if you just look at the section here, you say, okay, well, that's 2,500 feet, you know, that's over 2,500 feet of .7% copper equivalent. that's... it's just unheard of. and it's amazing. it's a huge system. and, as geologists, it's just an
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absolute dream. >> narrator: on its website, the mining company has illustrated the extent of the known deposit. it shows more than a half-mile deep of high-grade copper ore. it contains an estimated 80 billion pounds of copper, 5.5 billion pounds of molybdenum, and 100 million ounces of gold. >> i'd say primarily it's a copper mine, certainly with gold credits. but it's primarily a copper mine. >> if, for example, gold were to go to $5,000 an ounce tomorrow, this would become a gold mine. just that little section there. >> if you took the current metal prices on the london exchange, and applied that to the current estimates of metal in the ground, then the value of e deposit for all the metal in the ground that we know of today is in excess of $200 billion. >> that's why jim and i get paid such big bucks.
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>> it is the largest known copper resource and the largest known gold resource in north america today, and the second largest deposit of its type ever found. >> i just find the stuff. what they do with it afterwards is, you know, the corporate guys. >> narrator: the corporate guys are the pebble partnership, an international consortium led by anglo american, that has assembled mineral leases over 330 square miles of state land. it's this land, braided with creeks and streams, that has become a controversial battleground, with environmentalists questioning whether a mine can coexist with the salmon fishery. >> the pebble prospect lies on the headwaters of two of bristol bay's most important salmon- producing systems. >> narrator: doctor carol ann woody is a fish and wildlife biologist who has been working with the nature conservancy. >> it's basically distilled water. it's as pristine as water can get.
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>> narrator: she's been counting the number of young salmon in these streams, to document that this area at the mine site is fish habitat. >> it doesn't look like much does it? but these little tiny streams are very important because these are nursery habitat for small salmon. >> do we have any more in the bucket? >> cohos? >> yeah. >> coho salmon and king salmon and all the little fish, after they hatch out, they have to find a place to get away from all the big predators that want to gobble them down, and the strategy is for them to move upstream. and this is where the small salmon learn to fight and get food and run away from kind of smallish predators. and they sort of go from being a little kid to the teenager, until they can play in the bigger river with the big kids. if you put water in it, they mellow out. watch. put water in and they'll just calm down because they feel better. like, "oh, i can breathe again."
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in alaska, unlike the lower 48, you have to show that there are salmon in the stream before it can be protected. i think i'm going to just set one here. i had asked fish and game if they were going to survey all these small tributaries feeding into the main stems, and they said they didn't have the direction or the money to do this work. the nature conservancy stepped up and we got a crew of six volunteers, and documented 28 miles of salmon stream. so we'll nominate this, and now if people want to muck around in here, there will be restrictions on how they can do it. but this will be impacted. how much? we're not sure until we have an idea what they're going to do and what the plans are. >> narrator: the company says it's too early to show real plans, but there are preliminary drawings on file with the
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securities and exchange commission. what they describe is an open pit mine that could become two to three miles wide, and a mile deep. it would become one of the largest open pit mines in the world. next to it, a tailings dam will rise 700 feet high, covering several square miles and able to hold billions of tons of mining waste. and as mining continues, another tailings dam will be needed. they would be among the largest man-made structures on earth. >> it's going to be, probably, at least a $7 or $8 billion investment just to get us up and running. >> narrator: john shively became ceo of the pebble partnership in 2008. his job is to guide the project through the long permitting process. >> we think the resource
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probably would last for a 100 years or more of mining, but we're not going to try to permit a mine that's a hundred years long. >> narrator: this is the valley where the mine would be built, 15 miles from lake iliamna. >> it's a very complicated project. i mean, it's a mine, a significant-sized mine. it's an 86-mile road. it's a brand new major port, and it's a power project. any one of those four would require full environmental impact statements. so making all those pieces fit, both in terms of the environment and then economically and operationally, is not easy. >> a mine in this area is very complicated. there are a lot of moving parts, and you have to really look at every one of those closely. >> narrator: ken taylor is a wildlife biologist who is in charge of pebble's environmental studies.
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>> if we can't coexist with the fishery, then we shouldn't build the mine, because fish are really important to the people out here. and we have focused a lot of our environmental baseline studies on fish and fish habitat. our water quality studies have been extremely intense. far more than any other mine or oil and gas development project has done in alaska in the past. >> narrator: taylor believes that the waters near the mine site are not a very important part of the salmon habitat. >> the area that we are likely to impact if this mine goes forward is not a very productive part of bristol bay in and of itself. it's a very small part of the headwaters that typically freeze solid during the wintertime. >> oh, there's a little jack! >> narrator: tom quinn is professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the university of washington, and a leading expert on salmon and trout. >> if you were to pick the worst place in the world from the point of view of salmon to have
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an activity like this, it would be exactly right exactly where they've got it. >> narrator: he has been conducting research on the life cycle of salmon in the bristol bay region for 25 years. >> there's a tremendous exchange of groundwater and stream water. water will crisscross back and forth between the mulchatna and kvichak river systems in the area precisely where the mine is proposed to occur. so the groundwater is crisscrossing back and forth from one basin to another. and the salmon spawn in that groundwater, so this area is extraordinarily vulnerable to toxins and pollution because the groundwater penetrates so deeply and moves so freely from stream to stream. but also there's absolute certainty that stretches of productive salmon and trout river will be dewatered. they'll simply pump the water out of them because in order to have a deep pit you've got to keep it dry. the bottom of the pit is well below the level of the lake. so it'll be constantly pumping
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out and dewatering streams. that's an absolute certain effect on those populations. >> you don't want to take out a lot of water from a fish stream and not... not replace it. >> narrator: pebble says that all the water will be recycled back into the watershed. >> what we want to do is discharge as much surplus water as we can after it's been treated and meets water quality standards. and that's one of the things we have to do under the conservation laws. that's one of the things we want to do. >> we have to ask ourselves whether it's worth the risk. >> no! >> narrator: the local fishermen are not convinced. >> not no... not just no, but hell no. (cheers and applause) >> don't trust the state of alaska to tell you whether this mine is good or not. let your gut tell you. do you want to roll the dice? >> narrator: the commercial fishermen have joined forces with the environmentalists
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against the mine. and for many of the alaska natives, the mine is threatening an ancient way of life. >> bristol bay's backbone is salmon, and it has been for generations and generations. >> (woman speaking a native language): >> narrator: 75-year-old mary olympic has lived in the bristol bay area her entire life. >> narrator: mary olympic's daughter lydia now lives in the city.
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>> you're like the salmon. you know when it's time to come home. we've always done it. i grew up going back, and you look forward to it. >> this is the only time that i ever get to interact with mom in her setting. what she's good at. what she knows. my mom is in better shape than i am. still goes hunting, whether it's for birds or caribou. it's a small gun. everyone says you're not supposed to kill a bear, you know, with that kind of a gun. and she says, "why not? this is the tenth bear i killed with this gun." (laughs) and she says, "you need to get close." >> most people that don't have jobs rely on subsistence. they live off the land. as soon as salmon season is over, we all start looking
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forward to picking berries, gathering them for the winter. as soon as that's over, we start looking forward to harvesting caribou and moose. i mean, it's a constant variety of activities that rely on good, clean environment to sustain us. >> if pebble goes through, it will change everything. having that influx of outsiders coming in, affecting the way we live... that would be really hard on us as a people. >> narrator: with most alaskan natives in the region opposed to the mine, pebble ceo john
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shively knows he has an uphill battle. >> i came to alaska in 1965 as a vista volunteer. most of my work has been with alaska natives, looking for economic opportunities for people that live in rural alaska. >> narrator: shively has made a point of visiting local villages to explain the potential benefits of the pebble project. >> i'm all for the bear hunting. >> we have several ideas. the first is that i actually think the road itself ought to be owned by native corporations, starting, of course, with the corporations that have land ownership. >> there are some people that are very much for it because of the economic opportunity. it's completely divided the whole region. it's really sad. it's a big deal; it's on the top of everyone's mind. >> so i think there certainly will be opportunities there. >> narrator: with so few opportunities in these villages, and a local population of just a few thousand people, shively's promises are welcome to some
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locals. >> my family, when i was growing up, we were raised on the land. my dad was a trapper, and we were raised off subsistence. >> this is ready to be chopped up and thrown in the pot. >> narrator: lisa reimers heads a group that wants to develop the lake iliamna region. >> you don't take the bones out, auntie lisa? >> nobody truly lives off subsistence any more like my parents did. we became a cash economy. and now we need more than fish. >> we live on salmon, we love our salmon, we enjoy our salmon. but it's not going to get us gas for a honda, it's not going to get us gas for the truck, it's not going to get us gas for the boat. it's not going to pay the light bill, it's not going to pay any kind of bills-- internet bill, phone bill. it's not going to do that for us. and we need jobs to do that. >> here in southwest alaska,
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it's easy to see the positive impact pebble is having on the region. jobs. >> narrator: it's unclear how many of the 1,000 or so permanent jobs at the mine will go to locals. >> pebble is going the extra mile to coexist with the environment. >> narrator: but pebble has unleashed a barrage of ads to promote the mine and wider economic development. they are spending so much money because so much is at stake. >> log on and learn the facts today. >> by the end of this year, we'll have spent totally, since i've been here, a little over $400 million. i think probably around $450 million or so. >> narrator: anglo american is paying most of those expenses. in 2007, it agreed to spend $1.5 billon in startup costs. it could be money well spent. by 2011, the deposit was worth closer to $500 billon as demand for gold and copper surged on the world market.
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>> copper is sort of like the stealth mineral, because people don't think about it, and yet if my friends in the environmental community that are opposed to the mine took my advice and took a no copper pledge, their lives would be much different. >> you might be surprised to learn just how much copper is a part of our daily lives. >> narrator: the global demand for copper has become a central argument in pebble's marketing campaign. >> if you have a cell phone, if you have a car, if you have anything that has electric in it, you've got copper. >> you can thank copper for that extra gas mileage. >> if you want to buy a hybrid car, you're going to have almost twice as much copper as if you buy the same model that isn't a hybrid car. >> a house isn't a home without copper. >> there is plenty of copper around. there are mines in africa, in south america, in the united states like the bingham mine and others, where they're mining
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copper and doing quite well. and the volume produced is actually very high. >> narrator: that's the argument opponents make, that for all the wealth of the pebble deposit, it's not essential, and the trade off is too high. >> the pebble mine, it's the wrong place and the wrong mine. >> narrator: rick halford was president of the alaska state senate. when you talk about dollars or gold volume or copper volume, it's billions. but there's billions on the other side. >> the present value of a commercial fishery that's got 125 years of success, a subsistence fishery that's been going on for a millennium, of a sport fishery that is matched nowhere in the world, the values are also very, very high on that side. this, i believe, will be the biggest environmental fight of this century for alaska. ugly stuff. >> narrator: a republican, he helped to write many of alaska's
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mining regulations. >> i spent my life in public office in support of the mining industry. it wasn't until i was asked to look at this prospect that i had any idea what a massive sulfide open pit mine could be. this is nothing like anything that we have ever seen. all the mines in all of alaska's history would fit in the hole of this mine and leave three quarters of it still empty. you could put three bingham canyon mines-- the largest mine in north america-- in the hole. >> welcome to the kennecott utah copper's world-famous bingham canyon mine. >> narrator: the bingham canyon mine is similar to what pebble would look like. argestis the world's manmade excavation, being more than 2.5 miles wide and three-quarters of a mile deep. the empire state building would not reach halfway up to the depth of the pit.
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>> narrator: the main difference is location. bingham canyon is located in a dry landscape, far from any fisheries. pebble is located in the midst of hundreds of streams and rivers, connected through an elaborate network of underground water. the potential for contamination is high, especially given that the main mineral to be mined is copper. >> copper is toxic. at high levels, it simply kills fish. but the typical toxic effects are much more pernicious and much less visible. for example, the fish, they use their sense of smell to locate the stream in which they were spawned, in which they were gonna themselves breed before they die. and we know from various research studies that the sense of smell is affected by copper at much lower concentrations than would actually cause the fish to keel over and die. and so you could put a small concentration of copper in the water, fish wouldn't keel over dead and so you'd say, "well, there doesn't seem to be a problem here." but you've made a subtle change
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in the sensory system, rendering it less able to avoid predators, less able to find prey, less able to hone back to the stream. >> if that science is correct, then when we process the water, we have to take the copper out. because if the choice has to be between fish and mining, we choose the fish. our challenge is to prove that the two can coexist. (explosions) >> narrator: the question of whether or not the two can coexist is directly related to how copper is mined. this mine, near santiago, chile, uses the same method that pebble would in building an open pit mine. it starts with blasting the bedrock and hauling away the ore, which is then put through a series of crushers that grind the rock into a sandy powder.
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then liquid chemicals separate the metal from the ore, creating a copper concentrate. this copper slurry would be moved almost a hundred miles by pipeline to a new port on cook inlet, and shipped to smelters for refinement into pure copper plates. >> narrator: a byproduct of this process is an enormous amount of waste. in the case of pebble, it's estimated that the mine could create up to ten billion tons of waste, which would need to be stored and monitored forever. >> it's hard to imagine what ten billion tons really is. is ten billion tons that range of mountains in a pile? what would it be? i asked one of our engineers what ten billion tons would be if it were in a square column a thousand feet wide and a thousand feet high. and he came back in a few minutes and said, "well, by my just first calculations, somewhere between 29 and 30 miles long." it's just... it's beyond imagination.
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>> narrator: much of the waste will be in the form of tailings, the muddy sediment that remains once the ore has been processed. the tailings will be stored behind massive dams that could hold 20 times the waste of these at the anaconda mine in nevada. it is the byproduct of these tailings that poses the greatest threat to the environment. >> the minerals that we're trying to mine are what are called sulfide minerals. the most common sulfide mineral is iron sulfide, pyrite. and what happens when you expose pyrite to oxygen and to water is that it breaks down chemically into a weak sulfuric acid. that acid in turn will dissolve some of these other accompanying sulfide minerals that contain lead, zinc, cadmium, selenium, arsenic, and a whole host of other things. >> and now you have a problem because you have water with...
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with acid in it as well as metals that are in solution. and those metals in solution can be very damaging. the old name for those waters is acid mine drainage. >> narrator: the greatest concern is that over time, a toxic plume of these dissolved metals could eventually leach from the tailings dams into nearby rivers and lake iliamna. >> i think you design something to make sure it doesn't feed into lake iliamna. i mean, it's an engineering issue, not-not a physics issue. so we have to be able to engineer something that prevents that. and we're going to have to prove to people that our engineering works. >> we'll have to have monitoring stations around the tailings facility that ensure that there's no seepage. we will also have seepage collection ponds downstream from the tailings facility and pump
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that water back into the tailings facility. downstream from there, we'll be monitoring wells where we'll have to meet the state and federal water quality standards. and if we're not meeting them, it's because we're not collecting all the seepage, so more seepage wells and ponds would be installed. >> anything that requires perpetual remediation scares me. this is an area of experimentation. and i don't believe that it's the place to experiment. if we saw one huge sulfide mine in a wet climate succeed and could follow it, it might be something to look at. but you can't find it even in mines that are half the size of this deposit. >> narrator: the berkeley pit is an example of perpetual remediation. it's a copper sulfide mine in butte, montana. >> at pebble, the open pit will probably be no different than this open pit.
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they're holes in the ground. we'll still have waste rock piles, tailings impoundments, all those type of things, and really the technology of doing that hasn't changed vastly since they built this. >> narrator: the mine was closed in 1982. >> after mining closed down since then, the water has been allowed to drain through the underground workings and eventually to the open pit. it'll keep rising for about another 80 feet and then they'll start pumping it to maintain it at that level and we'll maintain it at that level forever. essentially we have to do that to keep the water out of the main river, the clark fork river, because this is essentially battery acid behind us. >> narrator: when pebble eventually closes, billions of gallons of water will accumulate over time. they will need to be treated and maintained in perpetuity. >> we're not designing for what it's going to look like 100 years from now. we have to think about what it's going to be like out there 10,000 years from now, for instance.
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so that's being factored into the design. >> narrator: another design challenge is earthquakes. in 1964, alaska was struck by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever to have struck north america, and the second largest earthquake in recorded history. alaska sits on the seismically active pacific ring of fire, and there are many active faults throughout the state. a large enough earthquake near the mine site could have disastrous consequences. >> if pebble is wanting to figure out whether there are faults and such around here... >> narrator: dr. bretwood higman is a geologist and mine opponent who is studying the seismicity around the pebble deposit. the main concern is the lake clark fault, which the u.s. geolical survey shows pointing towards the mine site.
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>> the usgs mapped it as far as the southwest end of lake clark, and from there it's about another 15 or 20 miles to the mine site. so that's where that's the big question mark here, is-is what happens in that 15 to 20 miles. >> narrator: pebble maintains that the fault either terminates or bypasses the mine site. >> we did a sort of electromagnetic flying of that fault, and actually it turned out to go in a different direction than people thought it did. so we have mapped that. that fault has not been active for, i think, over 11,000 years. so we really don't think it's a threat. >> narrator: still, pebble says they are designing their structures to withstand a magnitude 7.5 earthquake on the lake clark fault. >> survey all these little beach features, river features, and so on... >> narrator: but critics like higman point out that pebble won't release the more sophisticated mapping data that might support their claims. >> so if they design a facility with very optimistic ideas about
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seismic hazards and it turns out they are wrong, it turns out that there is a big risk from earthquakes, that's exactly the scenario that could lead to a tailings dam failure. >> narrator: tailings dam failures are caused not just by earthquakes. this spill in 1985 near stava, italy, was the result of poor design and extreme water pressure. it killed 269 people. >> the most common failure mechanism is related to hydrologic events-- that is large storms that basically overwhelm the storm retaining capacities that the dam was designed for. >> narrator: the bristol bay region already experiences heavy rainfall. the effects of future climate change will also need to be considered in the design of the dams. >> there's quite a long list of
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recent tailings dam failures of dams that were built with modern technology. i've stood on top of several tailings dams that have failed in south africa, in brazil. the recent one that was in hungary in the last couple of years, quite an ugly spill. >> narrator: in kolantar, hungary, in 2010, this tailings dam collapsed after heavy rains, contaminating the town and nearby rivers. but john shively is not worried that the dams at pebble will fail. >> i basically believe that the technology is there to build the mine. i am convinced that the ability to keep things behind the tailings and impoundment facility that need to be kept there, that technology is all there. we are going to have to prove that we can do that to people. if we can't prove it, i don't see how the mine gets permitted. >> narrator: the town of dillingham is home to many of bristol bay's fishermen.
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in the winter of 2012, environmental scientists from the coalition of opponents gathered here to ask hard questions about the mine. finally, after eight years, the pebble partnership had released its environmental study. at 27,000 pages, this was the final step before the formal permitting process for the mine would begin. >> when we went into the tributaries, we started at the confluence with the main stem. >> narrator: they presented their findings. >> the studies were pretty exhaustive. consultants studied the physical environment, the biological environment, and the social environment. obviously, fish are very important out there, so the fish studies were very extensive. >> narrator: dr. carol ann woody questioned pebble's research. >> millions of dollars have been spent and we still don't know how many fish actually spawn there. it's all focused on the main stem rivers. the main stem rivers are only
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about 200 miles of habitat. the majority of salmon habitat in that region is in the headwaters. >> we have the drilling, we have site reconnaissance. >> and that concerns me. a lot of the groundwater models rely on information collected from these drill cores. so, you know, what the.... >> narrator: woody was also concerned about how the data was released. >> and there have been a number of requests for the drill log information. do you know if that information will be made available? >> well, all the drill hole logs are included in the ebd. and the ebd is publicly available. >> that information is not easily used because it's in a format that is very difficult for scientists to look at. science is only science when it's passed a jury of its peers. the data that has been collected at pebble, you couldn't really call that science at this point. because it's not reproducible.
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you can barely figure out what's been done. the information they provided in their environmental baseline document is locked. you can't analyze the information because it's in a format where you would have enter everything by hand if you wanted to run an analysis. so are there plans for the pebble limited partnership to release that information in a usable form? >> we have no plans at this time to distribute the information in an electronic form that can easily be manipulated.te it's not a standard industry practice to even release this information prior to permitting. i think most of you know, i'm retiring in five weeks and whoever replaces me may change that decision. but that's where it is right now. >> narrator: opponents say difficulty obtaining useful data from pebble has been an ongoing problem. these emails, obtained by environmental groups through the freedom of information act,
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reveal that many state regulators who attended meetings with pebble were frustrated by the company's refusal to share information. this email from an official of alaska's department of fish and game says, "it's virtually impossible" to review pebble's science because "they don't provide detailed project designs... agency staff have consistently asked for." some regulators questioned why they had been asked to the meetings, saying that "none of those agency suggestions... have been incorporated" in any of pebble's studies. another official wrote, "this entire process benefits only pebble's public relations campaign... these meetings are a waste of our time." >> narrator: john shively's response is wait for the permitting process. he says all environmental concerns will be addressed by the state and federal agencies who will soon begin the elaborate process of permitting the mine. >> the permitting process will probably take four to five
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years. and then there's the question of which government agency might cause us the most trouble potentially in permitting. we have a number of challenges. obviously the environmental protection agency, both in terms of the water issues, use of wetlands where they have concurrent jurisdiction with the corps of engineers, air permitting, endangered species around the port are all issues we're going to have to deal with. >> narrator: but first, pebble must deal with the state of alaska. all of the state agencies, from conservation to fish and game, will be coordinated by the large mine permitting team at the department of natural resources. >> the permitting process for pebble will be a big challenge. i don't think there's any doubt that it will be the largest, thickest environmental impact statement ever done in alaska, maybe the nation, maybe the world. >> it would be far and away larger than anything else that's been developed thus far.
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it will change our world once the applications are actually submitted. >> this is the inspection report from pebble. >> narrator: alaska has a long history of mining, with some of the world's most industry-friendly regulations. the sheer scale of the pebble project means that many of the agencies reviewing the permit applications will be inundated. >> fish and game doesn't have the staff to review it. they have people who are, you know, honest and hardworking, but they don't have the technical expertise. they're not engineers, they're not toxicologists. they're not experts on acid mine drainage. so... and there's going to be a huge amount of data. and the devil really is in the details. >> the data would fill a room. there's a lot of data. they've done lots of drilling, lots of field data. it's incredible. >> i am very concerned about our permitting and regulatory processes. a few years ago there was a severe gutting of our regulatory
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and permitting processes by our former governor. so there's a lot of concern over that. >> narrator: but officials from the department of natural resources are confident they can handle it. >> we're smart enough to know when we're not smart enough. and the large mine permitting team has the capability of going out and acquiring consultants and additional professional expertise, and we're not shy about doing that. >> narrator: the process of permitting a mine can go on for years. the open-ended procedure means that the company can keep responding to agency questions. >> if the company can meet all the standards in their design, then we may have no choice but to permit it. if they can show that water quality will be protected, and that air quality will be protected and the fish and wildlife resource will be protected, then, you know, essentially they're due a permit. >> obviously the intent here is that, okay, to allow the
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project to go ahead if they can meet these requirements. >> as long as they keep beefing up the design, you know, at some point, you know, you would think we would have no choice but to say, "yeah, well, you're going to meet all the laws and regulations there. okay, that's going to pass muster." >> once they go to permit, and they file a report and they ask to get a permit, i think they'll get their permits. i-i think you know the dnr large mines department is going to figure out a way to permit this thing. and they'll have a bunch of mitigating measures and stuff to try to reduce the risk and the impacts, but it'll go to permit once they file. >> narrator: if the pebble partnership does get its permit and the mine is built here, in this valley, it will have a much wider impact than a single mine. after pebble, it would harder for regulators to turn down other mining claims.
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>> if pebble mine is permitted and they develop a port and the road and the power, it would be a game changer for that region of alaska. and there are so many other claims around that i just think it's just step one out of hundreds of mines. so i would see no end to mining in that district; it would go on for a century or two probably. >> it would be a huge and very, very fundamental change in the way of life forever. if this particular mine is permitted, the whole land use in that region would go not progressively but relatively rapidly to a mining district. and the question is, who has the authority to make that decision? because there's no specific permit for changing the bristol bay region into a mining district. >> it could become a mining district. is that good or bad?
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i mean, if it's done right, i mean, it provides more economic opportunity for the area, and if the fish can survive along with it, it seems to me that that's a positive because, you know, one of the other criticisms we get is, well, this isn't sustainable, you know, whether it's 30 years or a 100 years, this isn't sustainable. well, if it's a large, long-term district, then it becomes more sustainable. >> narrator: despite pebble's assurances that the mine and fish can coexist, opponents fear that if the region becomes a mining district, a way of life that has sustained them for thousands of years could be lost. >> our lives are all dependent on our fish, and would be completely changed without this wonderful resource. i protest the pebble mine. (applause) >> narrator: for years, the growing coalition of anti-pebble groups had known they were fighting a mining consortium with deep pockets and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.
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>> all of us together can make it happen. we have to unite. >> narrator: they also knew that the state of alaska has never failed to permit a major mine. so a group of native tribes and commercial fishermen decided to look elsewhere for support. two years ago, they reached beyond the state to the federal government and petitioned the environmental protection agency to intervene. under the clean water act, the epa can investigate and determine whether mine discharge will affect fish spawning and breeding areas. for more than a year, the epa gathered information about the watershed. then, in may 2012, their draft assessment was published. it came down hard on the pebble project, detailing the many risks involved, including a major loss of fish habitat, the high probability of a damaging pipeline break, the catastrophic
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consequences of tailings dam failures, and the never-ending threat of acid mine drainage. the findings are significant in that the epa can unilaterally stop the mine. >> it's outrageous that somebody would stop a project before a project proponent even had a chance to make the plans public. i don't think that's the kind of reputation our country wants to start to get if we want to start to have any kind of investment in large projects. so i think it would set a terrible precedent. >> the future of the pebble mine project took center stage in anchorage tonight. >> about 400 people showed up... >> narrator: in anchorage, many alaskans reacted angrily to the epa's involvement. when the agency called for a series of public hearings to discuss their draft assessment, john shively wasn't the only one who felt that the federal government was intruding in the state's affairs. >> what's so offensive is to have the epa come in without any permit authority and usurping
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the rights that we have here in our state to go through this process. >> narrator: more than half the speakers objected to the epa's assessment. their slogan was "hands off alaska." >> you have just scared away every potential investor to the state of alaska when it comes to mineral resource development. (applause) >> narrator: dennis mclerran, the epa administrator for the region, had already come in for criticism. >> you have built this a-bomb for your anti-development warfare. >> narrator: alaska's attorney general had written him a scathing letter, calling the decision to assess the watershed "unlawfully preemptive, premature, arbitrary, and capricious." >> there's been letters exchanged from the state attorney general and so on, and we've replied to that. that's a matter of public record. we believe we do have clear authority under the clean water act to do studies of water quality and watersheds, and we've done them many times in the past. so this is an example of us
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gathering good science and being able to use that science in any process that comes from here on forward. >> narrator: the next day in dillingham, the epa had another public meeting, attended mostly by native alaskans, environmentalists, and fishermen. >> welcome to dillingham and thank you very much for doing this epa assessment. >> narrator: this time, everyone who spoke supported the epa's involvement. >> you're probably the only agency that's listened to the tribes and the people here in bristol bay. >> your actions are what we would expect from the environmental protection agency. so, your actions are both welcome and bureaucratically heroic, so thank you. >> narrator: after an independent panel of scientists reviews their data, the epa could make a decision that's sure to be politically controversial everywhere but here-- a regulatory action that could effectively stop the mine.
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>> i wish to thank the epa for coming, and remember, we must all do everything we can to take care of this big village we call earth. thank you very much. >> thank you. >> narrator: the epa has not said when they will make that final decision, but whatever the agency decides, legal challenges, political battles, and the debate about the pebble mine will be argued for seasons to come. >> this is the last major salmon drainage, healthy one, in north america. we've managed, you know,-- we being you and i and everybody else-- have managed to foul up all the rest of them.
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best case scenario would be everything works like they say it will work. nothing goes wrong, no impacts. it doesn't put fisheries at risk. but the record of that kind of development in a relatively pristine functioning salmon ecosystem is very clear. we mess them up. i can't tell you that this mine is going to be a disaster. they can't tell you that this mine won't be a disaster, but i can tell you that from a probability standpoint, it's not a good bet that there won't be problems.
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♪ i'm sick and tired of hearing things ♪ from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites ♪ all i want is the truth just give me some truth ♪ i've had enough of reading things ♪ by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians ♪ all i want is the truth just give me some truth. ♪ >> frontline continues online. >> as a geologist, it's just an absolute dream. >> if we can't coexist with the fishery, then we shouldn't build a mine. >> read more about the battle over pebble mine from reporter blaine harden. find out about subsistence living in bristol y. >> a good, clean environment to sustain us.
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>> learn more about copper, the stealth mineral. watch the film online and follfrontline on facebook and twitter, or tell us what you think at >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. and by reva and david logan, committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by tfrontline journalism fund, with grants from jon and jo ann hagler on behalf of the jon l. hagler foundation, and scott nathan and laura debonis.
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