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 oceanits 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; theyre popular among the many tourists who cruise Alaskas 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 Earths 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.
The prow of the fishing boat the HeatherAnne in Taku Inlet, where the Taku River hits the ocean just outside of Juneau. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
[SOUND OF THE BOAT ENGINE]
FITZGERALD: Were 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 didnt 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 well 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.]
Heather Hardcastle and her father Len Peterson are co-owners of Taku River Reds. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
HARDCASTLE: So were approaching several gillnet vessels which are commercial fishermen that fish with nets that are held afloat with little quirks and theyre about a quarter mile long and 30 feet deep and theyre 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 theres 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 youre 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 hasnt 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.
On board Taku River Red's gillnet vessel. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 Heathers family company, Taku River Reds. Its 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: Weve come to break your reverie.
LEN: Well it really is a reverie, with the seals and the jellyfish.
HARDCASTLE: Its been slow?
LEN: Oh its 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 its the right size for Taku Inlet.
LEN: A large vessel really doesnt work very well for gillnetting so this is a fairly standard size vessel. Theyre all family operations. Only single person can own a permit it cant 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.
View near the Taku Inlet, where the Taku River meets the ocean, just outside of Juneau. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 couldnt 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 thats 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 whats called pressure bleeding to get all of the blood out of salmons 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 Alaskas fishery healthy, but regulation does nothing to protect the water and the fish from pollution.
Winston, from Taku River Reds, pulls headless salmon out of a cooler on board a gillnet vessel. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
[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. Its about 20 miles upriver, so were 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]
Its a DeHavilland Beaver, the workhouse around here. The plane pulls up next to our boat, and Chris Zimmer jumps out. Chrisa bearded middle-aged manis the campaign director for Rivers Without Borders. Hes going to show us the Tulsequah Chief, an abandoned mine on the Tulsequah River.
ZIMMER: Were going to fly up the Taku River, make a left up the Tulsequah River and then were 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.
The Taku River and glacier from the plane. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 doesnt 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 Columbias history.]
FITZGERALD: The timing couldnt 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 Frasers tributaries and lakes for decades, working their way up the food chain. Chris Zimmer says the accident shows that mining companies just dont have the technology to mine safely in sensitive ecosystems like wild rivers.
Taku River Valley. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
ZIMMER: This is a dam thats less than two decades old and its failed, and most of the tailings dams in existence have only been around for a few decades. We dont have examples of dams that have been around for 2, 3, 4 hundred years to look at and say this worked or didnt.
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 were 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 rivers edge. Heather presses her face against the window.
HARDCASTLE: Theres no words for this place. You look around, you see glaciers everywhere, you see the sloughs and the estuaries that are the greenest green youve ever seen. Im 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 everythinggarbage, 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.
Small float planes are ubiquitous in Southeast Alaska, where the lack of roads necessitates other forms of transportation. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
ZIMMER: Yeah, there you go, two holding ponds, one on the left, one on the right. As soon as those things fill up its 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 its hard to imagine how British Columbia could permit a company to redevelop a mine in this pristine watershed, when waste from the 50s still hasnt been cleaned up yet.
HARDCASTLE: I mean there has to be places on earth where you dont 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 Alaskas 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.
The Taku River and glacier from the plane. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 isnt surprised the Canadians gave KSM the go-ahead. He says its part of a trend.
ZIMMER: What were really seeing here is this partnership between the Canadian federal government, the BC provincial government, and the mining industry. And weve 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. Hes consulted with British Columbian officials throughout the review process, and he says their mining standards are just like Alaskas.
A glacier near the Taku River. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 offices 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. Were 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 Canadas Nass River. But the Nass hugs Alaskas southern border, and Chris Zimmer says that some of the salmon caught in Southeast Alaskas 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, its 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?
The Taku River from the plane. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 arent 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 whos there to clean it up?
FITZGERALD: Thats exactly what happened with the Tulsequah Chief 60 years ago. But Kyle Moselle of Alaskas Department of Natural Resources says that a mining company wouldnt 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 theyre stable slopes, reseeding areas with vegetation so you dont 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 Columbias 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]
A tributary of the Stikine empties into the main channel. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 doesnt smell as bad as you might think, but its 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: Weve sold to Russia, weve sold them to Japan, Ukraine, France, England, Italy, Mexico, Dubai. I dont know where we dont go.
FITZGERALD: Alaska Glacier Seafood is a small operation, but Mike says that the fishing industry is a major employer in Juneau.
ERIKSON: Its become more known how much of an impact the commercial fishing industry has on this community. Its huge. I think for us, one thing thats really cool is creating economic opportunities. When you can go home and say gee wiz we created three more jobs today, thats 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 thats because you dont see dams on our rivers, you dont 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 Alaskas two major tribes. Every year Rich goes back to the Carter River near Ketchikan where he grew up to hunt, gather, and catch salmon.
The abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine is right on the edge of the Stikine and has been leaking small amounts of mine waste into the river for years. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
PETERSON: Its one of the few times throughout the year I really know who I am. When I sit there I dont have all these existential questions about where I belong, I know Im right there. I belong. Im home. My feet feel happy to touch the water, to touch the land. And people who dont have those relationships or dont understand them might think thats a bunch of fluff, but I dont know how else to say it except thats how I know who I am is when Im out doing what Im supposed to be doing.
FITZGERALD: Rich Peterson says its his duty to protect the land and the waters for future generations. Hes 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, theres really no assurances at all. Its kind of like, Well take their our word for it. Well we cant risk taking anyones word for it.]
Alaska Glacier Seafoods is a small seafood processing plant in Juneau. (Photo: Emmett Fitzgerald)
FITZGERALD: Not all tribes oppose the transboundary mines. Seabridge Gold signed agreements with several First Nations in British Columbia, including the Nisgaa, 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. Hed be here meeting with us right now, hed 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 Alaskas concerns on the table. And thats probably something through the Boundary Waters 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 Montanas 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.
Alaska Glacier Seafoods processes salmon. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
ZIMMER: These mines are temporary. You know, Tulsequah Chief, 10 years. KSM, 50 years of operating economic productivity, and then theyre done. Its 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, theyll 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 theyre 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 theyre going to get hit with a double whammy of an unhealthy ocean and unhealthy freshwater habitat, I dont think thats something they can withstand.
FITZGERALD: Len Peterson of Taku River Reds, couldnt agree more. He says that mining companies talk a lot about modern techniques, but he hasnt seen much evidence of them.
LEN: Mining on a salmon river, Ive 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.
Salmon are one of Alaska Glacier Seafoods primary products. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)
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 dont you fret, we are going to get the set. I think thats it. Super Trooper was my favorite. LEN: So imagine that singing at the top of their lungs while theyre hanging from the hoist, the boom.
FITZGERALD: Now Heather has a daughter of her own.
HARDCASTLE: Yes, I just have one daughter and shes two, but shes certainly been out on the water a number of times and Sockeye was maybe her third word. And its her favorite food so thats gratifying to raise in a child in the way that I was raised.
FITZGERALD: Juneau isnt the easiest place to grow up. Its 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, shes 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.