“It’s difficult to put an economic value on a resource that can be mined forever,” says David Montgomery. He’s describing the sockeye salmon run in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, an annual run that has provided sustenance and an economy for generations of native fishermen. His phrasing might also apply to the project now threatening that ecosystem, the Pebble Mine. As it is planned by the companies Anglo-American and Northern Dynasty, the open-pit mine will produce an estimated half a trillion dollars’ worth of copper and gold. The cost for these rewards is currently under debate.
This debate forms the focus of Frontline: Alaska Gold, premiering on 24 July on PBS. The sides are embodied primarily by Pebble Park CEO John Shively (who insists that the mine will not upset the local environment) and Rick Halford, former Alaska Senate president and advocate for multiple previous mining projects. “This is an area of experimentation,” says Halford, “And I don’t believe that it’s the place to experiment.” Other mines of the type the Pebble Project proposes use technologies—ground tailings and empilements—that turn area water toxic. This even if, according to planners, they would be able to treat some waste and store the other 10 billion tons… forever.
Alaska Gold tracks the conflict over the Pebble project, including Alaskans who believe it will decimate the traditional economy, based on fishing, and those who contend it will improve living conditions, by providing jobs. Several experts point to previous mines that went wrong, in Chile, in Italy, and in Butte, Montana. Amid the turmoil, the EPA conducted a study that “came down hard on the Pebble project,” a study that then ignited concerns that the federal government shouldn’t be meddling in state business.