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NARRATOR: It's opening day of the fishing season in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
PETER ANDREW, Commercial Fisherman: I would describe it as pretty close to Christmas morning.
DYLAN: It's just intense, man. It's the beginning of June, and you know the fish are coming and 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.
PETER ANDREW: 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 shadows of doubts go away. And then you realize, "Here we go again. There's the presents. There's the gold."
TIM BRISTOL: Bristol Bay is this just phenomenal resource. It's a salmon factory that doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet anymore.
GUIDO RAHR, Wild Salmon Center: Bristol Bay is off the charts for wild salmon production.
CAROL ANN WOODY, Ph.D., Fish Biologist: 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.
OLE: A wall of fish comes at you. And 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're never going to— you can't catch them all.
DAVID MONTGOMERY, University of Washington: The amazing thing about salmon is that we can actually catch about half of them— sustainably! It's difficult to actually put an economic value on a resource that could be mined forever.
NARRATOR: The salmon fishery in Bristol Bay is set in an almost pristine ecosystem, unique in the world. Its waters 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.
DAVID MONTGOMERY: One of the wonderful things about salmon is they go back to their natal streams so faithfully. Something like 90 percent of them tend to go back to the streams they've spawned in.
BRIAN CRAFT: Go, spawn. We'll see your kids in three years. That's what it's all about right there.
DAVID MONTGOMERY: 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.
TIM BRISTOL: It's so hard to grasp the fact that you're here 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.
GUIDO RAHR: Wild fish are important because they're beautiful. It's a beautiful species and they're a miracle of nature. But they're important because they're also the food source for everything from bears to katis flies to eagles to killer whales. I mean, this is what feeds the food webs of the North Pacific, the 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. This was in 2007.
SEAN MAGEE, V.P. Public Affairs, Pebble Partnership: What we're doing here is in-fill drilling in Pebble East, meaning we're on the known deposit area. They're 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.
BRUCE JENKINS, Sr. V.P., Northern Dynasty Minerals: 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.
CASSADY HARRADAN, Geologist, Pebble Partnership: It's just incredible. I mean, what an opportunity for a young geologist right out of school, to be working on one of the largest copper deposits in the world. I mean, if you just look at the section here, you say, OK, well, that's 2,500 feet. You know, that's over 2,500 feet of over .7 percent copper equivalent. That's just unheard of. And it's amazing. It's a huge system. And as a geologist, it's just an absolute dream.
NARRATOR: On its Web site, 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.
KEITH ROBERTS, Geologist, Pebble Partnership: Well, I'd say primarily it's a copper mine, with gold— certainly with gold credits, yeah. But it's primarily a copper mine. If, for example, gold was to go to, you know, $5,000 an ounce tomorrow, this would become a gold mine.
BRUCE JENKINS: 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 the deposits for all the metal in the ground that we know of today is in excess of $200 billion.
KEITH ROBERTS: That's why Jim and I get paid such big bucks!
SEAN MAGEE: 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.
KEITH ROBERTS: 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 a salmon fishery.
CAROL ANN WOODY, Ph.D., Fish Biologist: The Pebble Prospect lies on the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's most important salmon-producing systems.
NARRATOR: Dr. Carol Ann Woody is a fish and wildlife biologist who has been working with the Nature Conservancy.
CAROL ANN WOODY: It's basically distilled water. It's as pristine as water can get.
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.
CAROL ANN WOODY: Doesn't look like much, does it? But this is— these little tiny streams are very important because these are nursery habitat for small salmon. 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 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."
In Alaska, unlike the lower 48, you have to show that there are salmon in the stream before it can be protected. I'd asked Fish and Game if they were going to survey all these tributaries feeding into the mainstems, and they said that 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 the 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 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 be 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.
JOHN SHIVELY, CEO, Pebble Partnership: It's going to be probably at least a $7 billion 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.
JOHN SHIVELY: We think the resource probably would last for a 100 years or more of mining, but we're not going to try to permit a mine that's 100 years long.
NARRATOR: This is the valley where the mine would be built, 15 miles from Lake Iliamna.
JOHN SHIVELY: It's a very complicated project. I mean, it's a mine, and it's a significant size 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.
KEN TAYLOR, V.P. of Environment, Pebble Partnership: 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.
KEN TAYLOR: 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 that's 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.
KEN TAYLOR: 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.
Prof. THOMAS QUINN, University of Washington: 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.
Prof. THOMAS QUINN: If you were to pick the worst place in the world from the point of view of salmon to have an activity like this, it would be 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
Prof. THOMAS QUINN: There's a tremendous exchange of groundwater and stream water. Water will criss-cross 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 criss-crossing 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 de-watered. They'll simply pump the water out of them because in order to have a deep pit, you've got to keep it dry and the bottom of the pit is well below the level of the lake. So it'll be constantly pumping out and de-watering streams. I mean, that's an absolute certain effect on those populations.
KEN TAYLOR: 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.
KEN TAYLOR: 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.
PROTESTER: And we have to ask ourselves whether it's worth the risk.
NARRATOR: The local fishermen are not convinced.
PROTESTER: Not no. Not just no, but hell no! [cheers]
PROTESTER: 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? [cheers]
NARRATOR: The commercial fishermen have joined forces with the environmentalists against the mine. And for many of the Alaska natives, the mine is threatening an ancient way of life.
PETER ANDREW: Bristol Bay's backbone is salmon, and it has been for generations and generations.
MARY OLYMPIC: [subtitles] I want to pass on our tradition of salmon and subsistence. We may not have this way of life forever.
NARRATOR: Seventy-fife-year-old Mary Olympic has lived in the Bristol Bay area her entire life.
MARY OLYMPIC: [subtitles] My grandfather always used to say, "Respect whatever you catch and never waste it, or it could be lost forever."
NARRATOR: Mary Olympic's daughter, Lydia, now lives in the city.
LYDIA OLYMPIC: 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 10th bear I killed with this gun." [laughs] And she says, "You need to get close."
PETER ANDREW: 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 forward to picking berries and 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.
[www.pbs.org: Living off the land in Bristol Bay]
MICHELLE RAVENMOON: If Pebble goes through, it will change everything. Having that influx of outsiders coming in, affecting the way we live— that would— 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 Shively knows he has an uphill battle.
JOHN SHIVELY: 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.
JOHN SHIVELY: [at village meeting] I have several ideas. I mean, 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.
MICHELLE RAVENMOON: There are some people that are very much for it because of the economic opportunity. It's completely divided the whole the whole region. It's really sad. It's a big deal. It's on the top of everyone's mind.
JOHN SHIVELY: So I think there are opportunities— 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 locals.
LISA REIMERS: My family— when I was growing up, we were raised on the land. My dad was a trapper and we were raised off subsistence.
NARRATOR: Lisa Reimers heads a group that wants to develop the Lake Iliamna region.
LISA REIMERS: Nobody truly lives off subsistence anymore, like my parents did. We became a cash economy. And now we need more than fish.
SONNY LAMONT: We live on salmon, we love our salmon, we enjoy our salmon. But it's not going to get us gas for the 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.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Here in southwest Alaska, it's easy to see the positive impact that Pebble is having on the region. Jobs—
NARRATION: It's unclear how many of the 1,000 or so permanent jobs at the mine will go to locals.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: 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.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Log on and learn the facts today.
JOHN SHIVELY: By the end of this year, will 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 billion in start-up costs. It could be money well spent. By 2011, the deposit was worth closer to $500 billion as demand for gold and copper surged on the world market.
JOHN SHIVELY: 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.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: 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.
JOHN SHIVELY: If you have a cell phone, if you have a car, if you have anything that has electric in it, you've got copper.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: You can thank copper for that extra gas mileage.
JOHN SHIVELY: 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.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: A house isn't a home without copper.
Prof. RON COHEN, Colorado School of Mines: 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 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.
[www.pbs.org: Copper: Supply and demand]
RICK HALFORD (R), Fmr. Alaska State Senator: The Pebble mine— it's the wrong place and the wrong mine.
NARRATOR: Rick Halford was president of the Alaska state senate.
RICK HALFORD: 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, this will be the biggest environmental fight of this century for Alaska.
NARRATOR: A Republican, he helped to write many of Alaska's mining regulations.
RICK HALFORD: 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.
LOUDSPEAKER: Welcome to Kennecott Utah Copper's world famous Bingham Canyon mine.
NARRATOR: The Bingham Canyon mine is similar to what Pebble would look like.
LOUDSPEAKER: It is the world's largest man-made excavation, being more than two-and-one-half miles wide and three quarters of a mile deep. The Empire State building would not reach halfway up to the depth of the pit.
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.
Prof. THOMAS QUINN, University of Washington: 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 going to 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 in the sensory system, rendering it less able to avoid predators, less able to find prey, less able to home back to the stream.
JOHN SHIVELY: 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.
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 as 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.
Then liquid chemicals separate the metal from the ore, creating a copper concentrate. This copper slurry would be moved almost 100 miles by pipeline to a new port on Cook Inlet and shipped to smelters for refinement into pure copper plates.
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 10 billion tons of waste, which would need to be stored and monitored forever.
RICK HALFORD: It's hard to imagine what 10 billion tons really is. Is 10 billion tons that range of mountains in a pile? What would it be? I asked one of our engineers what 10 billion tons would be if it were in a square column 1,000 feet wide and 1,000 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.
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 are the greatest threat to the environment.
DAVID CHAMBERS, Ph.D., Engineer and Geophysicist: 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.
Prof. RON COHEN, Colorado School of Mines: And now you have a problem because you have water 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.
JOHN SHIVELY, CEO, Pebble Partnership: 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 you know, we're going to have to prove to people that our engineering works.
KEN TAYLOR, V.P. of Environment, Pebble Partnership: 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 that water back into the tailings facility.
Downstream from there will 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.
RICK HALFORD (R), Fmr. Alaska State Senator: 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.
JIM KUIPERS, Mining Engineer: At Pebble, the open pit will probably be no different than this open pit. They're holes in the ground. We'll still have waste rock piles, tailings impoundments and 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.
JIM KUIPERS: 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 will 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.
KEN TAYLOR: 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. 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.
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. Geological Survey shows pointing towards the mine site.
BRETWOOD HIGMAN, Ph.D., Geologist: 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 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.
JOHN SHIVELY: 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. But critics like Higman point out that Pebble won't release the more sophisticated mapping data that might support their claims.
BRETWOOD HIGMAN: So if they design a facility with very optimistic ideas about seismic hazards and it turns out they're 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.
DAVE CHAMBERS: The most common failure mechanism is related to hydrologic events— that is, large storms that basically overwhelm the storm-retaining capacity 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.
RON COHEN: There's quite a long list of 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.
[www.pbs.org: When tailings dams fail]
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.
JOHN SHIVELY: 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.
[www.pbs.org: Watch on line]
NARRATOR: The town of Dillingham is home to many of Bristol Bay's fishermen. In the winter of 2012, environmental scientists from the coalition of opponents gathered here to ask hard questions about the mine.
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. They presented their findings.
KEN TAYLOR, V.P. of Environment, Pebble Partnership: The studies were pretty exhaustive. Consultants studied the physical environment, the biological environment and the social environment. And obviously, fish are very important out there, so the fish studies were very extensive.
NARRATOR: Dr. Carol Ann Woody questioned Pebble's research.
CAROL ANN WOODY, Ph.D., Fish Biologist: Millions of dollars have been spent, and we still don't know how many fish actually spawn there. It's all focused on the mainstem rivers. The mainstem rivers are only about 200 miles of habitat. The majority of salmon habitat in that region is in the headwaters. And that concerns me.
[at conference] A lot of the groundwater models rely on information collected from these drill cores.
NARRATOR: Woody was also concerned about how the data was released.
CAROL ANN WOODY: There have been a number of requests for the drill log information. Do you know if that information will be made available?
PEBBLE HYDROLOGIST: Well, all the drill hole logs are included in the EBD, and the EBD is publicly available.
CAROL ANN WOODY: 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 it science at this point because it's not reproducible. You can barely figure out what's been done. The information they've 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?
KEN TAYLOR: We have no plans at this time to distribute the information in an electronic form that can easily be manipulated. It's not a standard industry practice to even release this information prior to permitting. And 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, 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 the 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.
JOHN SHIVELY: Permitting process will probably take four to five years. And then there's a 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.
ED FOGELS, Dpty Commissioner, Dept. 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.
TOM CRAFFORD, Department of Natural Resources: It would be far and away larger than anything else that's been developed thus far. It will change our world once the applications are actually submitted.
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.
LANCE TRASKY, Fmr. Supervisor, Dept. of Fish and Game: Fish and Game doesn't have the staff to review it. They have people who are, you know, honest and hard-working, 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.
BUD RICE, National Park Service: The data would, you know, fill a room. There's a lot of data. They've done lots of drilling, lots of field data. It's incredible.
BILL WEILECHOWSKY (D), Alaska State Senator: I am very concerned about our permitting and regulatory processes. A few years ago, there was a severe gutting of our regulatory 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.
TOM CRAFFORD, Department of Natural Resources: 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.
ED FOGELS: 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.
TOM CRAFFORD: Obviously, the intent here is that, OK, to allow the project to go ahead, if they can meet these requirements.
ED FOGELS: 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. OK. That's going to pass muster."
BUD RICE: Once they go to permit and they file a report and they— and they ask to get a permit, I think they'll get their permits. 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 Pebble Partnerships 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 become harder for regulators to turn down other mining claims.
BUD RICE: 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's 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.
Prof. THOMAS QUINN, University of Washington: 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.
JOHN SHIVELY: It could become a mining district. Is that good or bad? 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.
PROTESTER: Our lives are all dependent on our fish and would be completely changed without this wonderful resource. I protest the Pebble mine. [cheers]
NARRATOR: For years, the growing coalition of anti-Pebble groups have known they were fighting a mining consortium with deep pockets and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.
PROTESTER: 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 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.
JOHN SHIVELY: 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.
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.
SPEAKER: What's so offensive is to have the EPA come in without any permit authority and usurping 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."
SPEAKER: You have just scared away every potential investor to the state of Alaska when it comes to mineral resource development.
NARRATOR: Dennis McLerren, the EPA administrator for the region, had already come in for criticism.
SPEAKER: 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."
DENNIS McLERRAN, Administrator, EPA, Region 10: There's been letters exchanged from the state attorney general, and so on. 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. And so this is an example of us 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.
YELMER OLSON: Welcome to Dillingham, and thank you very much for doing this EPA assessment.
NARRATOR: This time, everyone who spoke supported the EPA's involvement.
SPEAKER: You're the only agency that's listened to the tribes and the people here in Bristol Bay.
SPEAKER: Your actions are what would expect from the Environmental Protection Agency. So your actions are both welcome and bureaucratically heroic. 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.
SPEAKER: 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.
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.
DAVE CHAMBERS, Ph.D., Engineer and Geophysicist: 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.
Best case scenario is 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.