Published: August 13, 2016
By Emmett FitzGerald
The harbor in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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With many untouched wild rivers and sensible fishing regulations, Alaska has some of the healthiest salmon fisheries in the world. But as Emmett FitzGerald reports, new gold and copper mines upstream in Canada have the fishing community in Southeast Alaska very concerned about what toxins could be released into the rivers.
CURWOOD: The seventeen million acres of the Tongass National Forest make up most of Southeast Alaska, and it is largest remaining temperate rainforest on Earth. This lush coastal woodland has a unique relationship with the ocean—its massive salmon runs bring nutrients to the forest as the fish return to spawn.
The waterways of the Tongass are sheltered from the open ocean by an archipelago of wooded islands; they’re popular among the many tourists who cruise Alaska’s Inside Passage.But the biggest industry there is based on all those fish that feed the rainforest trees and animals.That lucrative commercial fishing economy is threatened by plans to start large scale gold and copper mining upstream across the Canadian border in British Columbia. Living on Earth’s Emmett FitzGerald has our report from Juneau, Alaska.
FITZGERALD: Juneau, Alaska, population 32,000, is a state capital in the heart of a roadless wilderness. To get around, you need a plane or a boat.
[SOUND OF THE BOAT ENGINE]
FITZGERALD: We’re headed up the Taku River, one of three major rivers that run across the border from the Canadian interior to the wild, forested coast of Southeast Alaska. Heather Hardcastle is a fisherwoman and part owner of a family-run salmon business called Taku River Reds. As the shining white cruise ships in Juneau harbor fade away behind us, Heather explains that the city was built on mining.
HARDCASTLE: Initial gold was discovered in Silverbow Basin behind Juneau in 1880.
FITZGERALD: The gold rush didn’t last long, but settlers looking soon realized there was money to be made in fish.
HARDCASTLE: There were salmon canneries operating throughout Southeast Alaska starting at the same time, so really gold mining at a large scale and salmon fishing and canning at a large scale started at the same time.
FITZGERALD: The Juneau gold mines shut down in the 1940s, but salmon fishing remains a booming industry in Southeast Alaska.
HARDCASTLE: Yeah, when we round the corner up here around Bishop Point we’ll start to see more commercial fishermen with nets in the water.
FITZGERALD: The boat slows down as we head into Taku Inlet, a sheltered cove where the river reaches the sea.
[SOUND OF THE BOAT SLOWING DOWN.]
HARDCASTLE: So we’re approaching several gillnet vessels which are commercial fishermen that fish with nets that are held afloat with little quirks and they’re about a quarter mile long and 30 feet deep and they’re targeting Sockeye salmon mostly and Coho salmon.
FITZGERALD: Alaska is home to five different salmon species. The least valuable is the Chum or Dog salmon, followed by Pinks (or humpies), then Coho, Sockeye, and finally the prized Chinook, or King Salmon at the top. All five species swim up Alaskan rivers to spawn.
HARDCASTLE: And the Taku River is the largest salmon producer in Southeast Alaska by far. And there’s several distinct runs of Sockeye salmon and this is probably the last run that fishermen are targeting this week.
FITZGERALD: A string of red buoys along the surface marks the top of each gillnet, carefully laid to snag the Sockeye as they head upriver.
HARDCASTLE: The mesh size is just so that you’re actually targeting a certain size of Sockeye and so it's a real regulated and also really precise fishery.
FITZGERALD: There are also strict windows for when you can fish for different species, making Alaska one of the few places left on earth with a healthy salmon fishery. But Heather says it hasn’t always been that way.
HARDCASTLE: You know here in Alaska we made our mistakes early in the twentieth century where larger companies were setting up large fishwheels at the mouths of rivers and taking every salmon that came by.
FITZGERALD: That scorched earth brand of salmon fishing continued until 1958 when Alaska became a state, and instituted many of the regulations that exist today.
HARDCASTLE: We really became a state largely because salmon fishermen in Alaska wanted to control their resources, and wanted to harvest them in a sustained, sustainable fashion.]
[BOAT ENGINE SLOWS DOWN]
FITZGERALD: One of the boats in the inlet today belongs to Heather’s family company, Taku River Reds. It’s a gillnetter called The Heather-Anne. As we approach, Heather waves to her father Len, walking out onto the deck.
HARDCASTLE: Hi Dad.
LEN: Oh hi.
HARDCASTLE: We’ve come to break your reverie.
LEN: Well it really is a reverie, with the seals and the jellyfish.
HARDCASTLE: It’s been slow?
LEN: Oh it’s been very slow.]
FITZGERALD: Len pulls us on board the Heather-Anne and we crowd into what little free space we can find amidst piles of netting and bins of salmon on ice. The 35-foot boat feels cramped, but Len says it’s the right size for Taku Inlet.
LEN: A large vessel really doesn’t work very well for gillnetting so this is a fairly standard size vessel. They’re all family operations. Only single person can own a permit it can’t be held by a company. It can be held only by an individual.
FITZGERALD: Rules like that keep small operations like Taku River Reds in business. Len and his wife Sheila first came to Alaska in 1970 to teach high school, but the high cost of living in Juneau forced them to work second jobs in the summers. Len crewed for other fisherman for a few years, then got his own boat. He made a good living until the early 2000s when widespread fish farming caused the price of wild salmon to crash.
LEN: From 2000, 2001, 2002, the price of salmon in Alaska was bottomed out. Some of the processors were actually paying you not to bring fish in because they had no place to put them. You couldn’t catch enough fish to make money, and so your choices were either to not fish, or try to cut a better price for the fish that we had, and that’s the reason I started Taku River Reds.]
FITZGERALD: That was in 2001, with Heather and her Husband Kirk. The idea was simple: if they could do some of the processing themselves on board the boat, they could make more money per fish. They started using what’s called pressure bleeding to get all of the blood out of salmon’s veins. Len fills a hypodermic needle with saltwater.
LEN: And I insert the hypodermic needle and with light pressure, increase the pressure ever so slightly until an enormous amount of blood gushes out of every fish.]
FITZGERALD: Salt water slows the decay process, preserves the freshness of the fish, and makes them more valuable. Today the price of Alaskan salmon has recovered, and the state has an entire agency that successfully markets its wild fish to the world. Len says that good regulation has kept Alaska’s fishery healthy, but regulation does nothing to protect the water and the fish from pollution.
[SOUND OF A PLANE IN THE AIR]
FITZGERALD: Heather Hardcastle and I are going to see a mine site on the Canadian side of the border. It’s about 20 miles upriver, so we’re going to need a plane. A red white and blue seaplane that looks like it belongs in a World War 2 museum lands on the water in front of us.
[ SOUND: PLANE TAXIING]
It’s a DeHavilland Beaver, the workhouse around here. The plane pulls up next to our boat, and Chris Zimmer jumps out. Chris—a bearded middle-aged man—is the campaign director for Rivers Without Borders. He’s going to show us the Tulsequah Chief, an abandoned mine on the Tulsequah River.
ZIMMER: We’re going to fly up the Taku River, make a left up the Tulsequah River and then we’re going to fly over the mine site.
FITZGERALD: The company Cominco mined zinc, copper, and gold at the Tulsequah mine from 1951 to 1957, when low metal prices forced them to shut it down. Now Chieftain Metals wants to reopen the mine, and they have all the permits they need, though Chris says that the remote location would make bringing materials in and out very difficult. But the biggest problem with any mining operation is waste. Mining and milling metals creates an enormous amount of worthless rocky slag called “tailings.”
ZIMMER: And a problem you have by exposing these tailings, this rock, to both oxygen and water is you create sulfuric acid, not good for fish by itself. The sulfuric acid then starts to leach the heavy metals out of the rock, things like arsenic and cadmium, things that again are very bad for fish. So you have this kind of toxic stew of highly acidic, concentrated heavy metals, and other contaminants; that stuff has to be kept out of the rivers.
FITZGERALD: But that doesn’t always happen. On August 4th, 2014, a tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia burst, sending 2.6 billion gallons of toxic mining waste into the Fraser River.
[RADIO REPORT] It may be the worst environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history.]
FITZGERALD: The timing couldn’t have been worse. Millions of sockeye had just begun their journey upstream, swimming right into the path of the toxic spill. Scientists say that the heavy metals could linger on the bottom of the Fraser’s tributaries and lakes for decades, working their way up the food chain. Chris Zimmer says the accident shows that mining companies just don’t have the technology to mine safely in sensitive ecosystems like wild rivers.
ZIMMER: This is a dam that‘s less than two decades old and it’s failed, and most of the tailings dams in existence have only been around for a few decades. We don’t have examples of dams that have been around for 2, 3, 4 hundred years to look at and say this worked or didn’t.
FITZGERALD: The Mount Polley disaster has people who fish very worried about what would happen if the Tulsequah Chief mine got reopened. Chris, Heather, and I pile into the tiny plane, and the pilot Dennis fires up the engine.
[SOUND OF PLANE ENGINE STARTING]
The plane taxis along the water and suddenly we’re airborne, tracing the mighty Taku, a thousand feet up. The river runs through a deep valley in a nest of braided channels. The water is light turquoise with swirls of brown where muddy tributaries hit the main stem. Most spectacular of all, are the countless tidewater glaciers that flow down the valley to the river’s edge. Heather presses her face against the window.
HARDCASTLE: There’s no words for this place. You look around, you see glaciers everywhere, you see the sloughs and the estuaries that are the greenest green you’ve ever seen. I’m looking at mountain goats up on the hillsides, harbor seals below us. I mean words fail you.
FITZGERALD: Our plane dips over the Taku glacier, a massive corrugated ice field. We head Northwest up the Tulsequah, and the plane banks low over the mine site. When Cominco closed the mine, they abandoned everything—garbage, heavy machinery, and pools of acid mine waste that have been leaking into the river for years. Chris Zimmer points to what look like swimming pools filled with orange paint.
ZIMMER: Yeah, there you go, two holding ponds, one on the left, one on the right. As soon as those things fill up it’s going to go right into the river. None of that stuff is getting treated.]
FITZGERALD: State studies have shown that the continued water pollution from the Tulsequah Chief mine is having a negligible impact on the ecosystem. But Heather says it’s hard to imagine how British Columbia could permit a company to redevelop a mine in this pristine watershed, when waste from the ’50s still hasn’t been cleaned up yet.
HARDCASTLE: I mean there has to be places on earth where you don’t put tailings facilities just because you can, just because the ore is there.]
FITZGERALD: Back on solid ground, Chris Zimmer says that Tulsequah Chief is just the beginning. Recently mining companies have announced plans for a series of metal mines along the transboundary rivers in British Columbia.
ZIMMER: In general we are up against this development binge in British Columbia. There are a variety of mines and all types of developments. I think the biggest concern are five of them; the Tulsequah Chief in the Taku, the KSM in the Unuk River drainage, and then three right in the Stikine and Iskut. And those three mines up there are Red Chris, Shaft Creek, and Galore Creek.
FITZGERALD: Chris says all of those mines could threaten the health of South East Alaska’s salmon.
ZIMMER: These are going to all have large tailings dumps that are going to have to be contained behind dams, they are all in sulfur bearing acid generating deposits. They are all in very close proximity to major salmon streams and they are in remote very geologically unstable, wet environments.
FITZGERALD: Of the five mining projects, really only one has gotten much media attention.
ZIMMER: The one that I think has got most people most worked up is the KSM mine, Kerr Sulphrets Mitchell, in the headwaters of the Unuk River on the BC side.
FITZGERALD: KSM is getting the most press because its size.
ZIMMER: You have this massive open pit mine, which would call for three open pits, an underground mine, two large tailing dumps with dams in front of them the size of the Hoover Dam.
FITZGERALD: In the summer of 2014, British Columbia released its final environmental impact assessment for the project, and then in December 2014, the Canadian federal government gave final approval. The company, Seabridge Gold, still has to get construction permits, but they could soon begin mining one of the largest copper and gold deposits in North America. Seabridge says that the 5.3 billion dollar mine will produce 130,000 tons of gold and copper ore per day. Chris Zimmer isn’t surprised the Canadians gave KSM the go-ahead. He says it’s part of a trend.
ZIMMER: What we’re really seeing here is this partnership between the Canadian federal government, the BC provincial government, and the mining industry. And we’ve seen that in tax breaks for the industry, the gutting and weakening of the environmental laws in Canada and BC over the last decade, the gutting of the Fisheries Act, the subsidies for mining development.]
FITZGERALD: But Kyle Moselle of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources says he trusts that Canadian regulators will protect the rivers that flow between the two countries. He’s consulted with British Columbian officials throughout the review process, and he says their mining standards are just like Alaska’s.
MOSELLE: Our laws are very comparable, our standards for the mining industry are extremely comparable. And we go about the business of evaluating mining proposals in the context of other important natural resources in that area in pretty much the same way.]
FITZGERALD: Moselle says that his office’s biggest concern with KSM was the wastewater treatment facility. Wastewater from the mine will be treated on site then discharged into Sulphets Creek, which flows into the Unuk River. Moselle and his colleagues looked into how that wastewater would impact Alaska.
MOSELLE: And what we found was that there really is no significant likely impacts to Alaska interests on any of those aspects. We’re not going to see a decrease in water quality entering Alaska.
FITZGERALD: Furthermore he says, Seabridge plans to build the KSM tailings ponds away from the mine itself, and a breach in the tailings dam would flow into Canada’s Nass River. But the Nass hugs Alaska’s southern border, and Chris Zimmer says that some of the salmon caught in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage spawn in Canadian rivers like the Nass. Chris says at the end of the day KSM is a massive project using unproven technology in a delicate ecosystem.
ZIMMER: KSM is basically an unprecedented type of mine up there in fabulous salmon habitat and to me what it is, it’s an ecological time bomb perched up there.
FITZGERALD: That bomb might not go off any time soon, but Chris wants to know what happens in 50 years when the mine shuts down? Or what if the company goes bankrupt?
ZIMMER: The company right now is making a whole lot of promises, but in two hundred years that company is going to be gone, those promises aren’t going to be worth a damn. The biggest problem is a lot of these junior companies come in without enough resources to do the job right and a lot of times what you will see is they may get half way done developing the mine and go bankrupt, walk away and then who’s there to clean it up?
FITZGERALD: That’s exactly what happened with the Tulsequah Chief 60 years ago. But Kyle Moselle of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources says that a mining company wouldn’t get away with that today.
MOSELLE: The Tulsequah Chief mine is an example of how mines became abandoned 50 - 60 years ago, that situation happens far less frequently now because of our environmental regulations, environmental standards both in British Columbia and Alaska.
FITZGERALD: Moselle says that when Seabridge is done mining at KSM, they will be required to reclaim the land.
MOSELLE: Reclamation basically means regrading the slopes so they’re stable slopes, reseeding areas with vegetation so you don’t have exposed soils, and then properly removing deleterious materials.]
FITZGERALD: In the meantime Seabridge Gold says that KSM will create 1,800 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent mining jobs. British Columbia’s Minister of Mines Bill Bennett says the project will be huge for the BC economy, and provide jobs for people throughout the province. But none of that will go to Alaskans, and fishing is the big business downstream. In 2012, Alaska accounted for 56% of all commercial fishing in the United States, with a catch valued at 2.1 billion dollars. In Southeast Alaska, the seafood industry employs over 13,000 people, about 1/7 of the population.
[SOUNDS OF THE PROCESSING PLANT]
FITZGERALD: Alaska Glacier Seafoods is a small fish processor based on the wharf in Juneau. Inside the plant a throng of workers in sweatshirts, rubber boots, and surgical masks are turning the days’ catch into a product that markets and restaurants can sell.
[SOUNDS OF THE PROCESSING PLANT]
FITZGERALD: The plant doesn’t smell as bad as you might think, but it’s still a pretty grisly scene. Headless salmon go by on conveyor belts, while employees armed with knives strip out the guts. Mike Erikson, the CEO of Alaska Glacier Seafoods, says his fish go all over the world.
ERIKSON: We’ve sold to Russia, we’ve sold them to Japan, Ukraine, France, England, Italy, Mexico, Dubai. I don’t know where we don’t go.
FITZGERALD: Alaska Glacier Seafood is a small operation, but Mike says that the fishing industry is a major employer in Juneau.
ERIKSON: It’s become more known how much of an impact the commercial fishing industry has on this community. It’s huge. I think for us, one thing that’s really cool is creating economic opportunities. When you can go home and say gee wiz we created three more jobs today, that’s cool stuff.
FITZGERALD: Mike says that his business depends on a few things: good relationships with the fishermen in the area, hard-working employees, and healthy rivers.
ERIKSON: You know Alaska is the jewel of the world when it comes to fisheries management. This state is second to none. And that’s because you don’t see dams on our rivers, you don’t see a lot of development in these watershed areas that will have a negative impact.
FITZGERALD: For Native Alaskans, salmon rivers have a cultural significance that transcends their economic value. Rich Peterson is the President of the Central Council for the Tlingit and Haida, Southeast Alaska’s two major tribes. Every year Rich goes back to the Carter River near Ketchikan where he grew up to hunt, gather, and catch salmon.
PETERSON: It’s one of the few times throughout the year I really know who I am. When I sit there I don’t have all these existential questions about where I belong, I know I’m right there. I belong. I’m home. My feet feel happy to touch the water, to touch the land. And people who don’t have those relationships or don’t understand them might think that’s a bunch of fluff, but I don’t know how else to say it except that’s how I know who I am is when I’m out doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
FITZGERALD: Rich Peterson says it’s his duty to protect the land and the waters for future generations. He’s represented the tribal government in meetings with various mining companies, including Seabridge Gold, and he asked the owner of KSM how they would protect the health of the Unuk river.
PETERSON: But when I look at it and ask the questions and have gone to the meetings, there’s really no assurances at all. It’s kind of like, ‘Well take their our word for it’. Well we can’t risk taking anyone’s word for it.]
FITZGERALD: Not all tribes oppose the transboundary mines. Seabridge Gold signed agreements with several First Nations in British Columbia, including the Nisga’a, agreeing to give tribal members jobs and some of the profits from the KSM mine. But back in the spring Rich Peterson met with leaders from the Tahltan First Nation in British Columbia, and he says that interaction gave him hope that Native groups from Alaska and Canada can stand together to protect the rivers they share. But at the end of the day this is an international issue, and Peterson says he wants the US State Department to get involved.
PETERSON: If I had my way John Kerry would be there right now. He’d be here meeting with us right now, he’d be in Canada meeting with the provincial government there and the First Nations there.
FITZGERALD: In August, a coalition of fisherman and Native Alaskans called on the State Department to invoke the 1909 Boundary Waters treaty to protect the transboundary rivers from mining development. Then in December the National Council on American Indians and the Alaska Federation of Natives echoed that demand. Chris Zimmer of Rivers without Borders says that makes a lot of sense.
ZIMMER: In the long-term what we need is a better mechanism to get Alaska’s concerns on the table. And that’s probably something through the Boundary Water’s treaty which was signed by both countries and says very clearly and simply, you cannot pollute the waters which flow between the two countries.]
FITZGERALD: The State Department invoked the Boundary Waters Treaty in Montana’s Flathead Valley to protect the Flathead and Elk Rivers in Montana from proposed coal mines upriver in British Columbia. Chris is hopeful that something similar could happen here, as Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich sent a letter in 2014 asking the State Department to take action. For Chris, this is a choice between two types of resources: the kind that lasts a few years, and the kind that lasts forever.
ZIMMER: These mines are temporary. You know, Tulsequah Chief, 10 years. KSM, 50 years of operating economic productivity, and then they’re done. It’s the classic and very dangerous boom and bust. The fish, if you give them what they want, healthy ocean, healthy forest, and healthy fresh water, they’ll continue to come back forever.
FITZGERALD: Of course, with climate change and ocean acidification, that whole healthy ocean part is a big question mark. As oceans absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ocean creatures throughout the food web, including salmon, will struggle to adapt.
ZIMMER: If they’re going to take a hit in the ocean, the least we can make sure the freshwater habitat is healthy. But if we start screwing up the freshwater habitat and they’re going to get hit with a double whammy of an unhealthy ocean and unhealthy freshwater habitat, I don’t think that’s something they can withstand.
FITZGERALD: Len Peterson of Taku River Reds, couldn’t agree more. He says that mining companies talk a lot about modern techniques, but he hasn’t seen much evidence of them.
LEN: Mining on a salmon river, I’ve never seen an example where it worked to the benefit of salmon. Healthy forests, healthy rivers, will get you what you need. Salmon will take care of themselves, they have for tens of thousands of years.
FITZGERALD: Taku River Reds is a real family business. Growing up, Heather spent most of the summer on the boat with her parents. Len says he put the kids to work, but Heather remembers spending most of her time dancing around the deck, composing salmon-themed songs to the tunes of her favorite band, ABBA.
HARDCASTLE: Something like, (singing) “Tonight the Sockeye salmon they are going to find us, swim into our net, baby don’t you fret, we are going to get the set.” I think that’s it. Super Trooper was my favorite. LEN: So imagine that singing at the top of their lungs while they’re hanging from the hoist, the boom.
FITZGERALD: Now Heather has a daughter of her own.
HARDCASTLE: Yes, I just have one daughter and she’s two, but she’s certainly been out on the water a number of times and ‘Sockeye’ was maybe her third word. And it’s her favorite food so that’s gratifying to raise in a child in the way that I was raised.
FITZGERALD: Juneau isn’t the easiest place to grow up. It’s cold, small, and isolated. At the winter solstice, the sun rises at 8:45 and sets at 3 in the afternoon. But Heather moved back here to give her daughter a chance at the childhood she had. And to make that happen, she’s going to fight to keep the rivers clean, and the salmon swimming upstream.
[SOUNDS – RIVER RUNNING]
For Living on Earth this is Emmett FitzGerald in Juneau, Alaska.
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