Top executives of a Canadian mining company who thought they were speaking with potential investors expressed confidence in their relationship with state and federal government officials and bragged that the proposed Pebble mine was really unstoppable.
In fact, they were speaking unwittingly with environmental investigators, who were videotaping all their comments.
“Once you have something like this in production why would you want to stop,” said Ronald Thiessen chief executive of Northern Dynasty Minerals, the parent company of Pebble Limited Partnership, and itself a subsidiary of Hunter Dickinson Inc., a diversified global mining group headquartered in Vancouver, Canada.
Villages in this sparsely populated area of Southwest Alaska would support the mine because of the tax money they would receive, Thiessen told the individual who identified herself as a potential investor, but was in fact with Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit firm based in Washington, D.C.
“It’s $10,000 per man, woman and child,” he said. “They want that to go away? No.”
In another recording Tom Collier, chief executive officer of the Pebble Partnership, spoke of his close connections with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and holding the largest private fundraiser for Dunleavy when he ran for office. He also spoke of organizing a business group that raised money to defeat nine Alaska legislators who had not been supporting the governor or the Pebble project.
Should Democratic candidate Joe Biden become president, “I will brush off my Democratic credentials and start using them a little more actively,” he told the investigator.
Pebble Partnership officials announced on Wednesday, Sept. 23 that Collier has resigned in light of the recorded comments he made in private conversations with the environmental group.
Former Pebble CEO John Shively, who had been serving as chairman of the Pebble Partnership’s general partner Pebble Mines Corp., will now serve as the interim CEO for the mining concern.
“Simply removing Collier from leadership cannot be allowed to distract from the reality that the entire Pebble permitting process has been tainted under his leadership,” said Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. “NDM CEO Ron Thiessen was on The Pebble Tapes as well and is equally culpable.”
These and numerous other comments from Thiessen and Collier are all included in tapes released by EIA on Monday, Sept. 21. The tapes reveal that rather than the small mine the Pebble Partnership has said publicly that it plans to build and operate near the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, home of the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon, that ultimately they would expand the mine over a much larger area, with a mine life of 180-200 years. The tapes also reveal Pebble’s plans to open up other large swathes of western Alaska, including the Donlin mine, owned equally by subsidiaries of Novagold, of Vancouver, and Barrick Gold, of Toronto.
“These tapes show that potential investors are given an entirely different vision for this massive mine than the government and the public,” said EIA executive director Alexander von Bismarck.
In an email response to a query, von Bismarck said that EIA has been following the Pebble project for the last few years due to interest in its potential impacts on wildlife and local communities, and that EIA is not doing this work with any contractors for any private entities.
Von Bismarck also said that the multiple video calls recorded in August and September 2020, were recorded in accordance with applicable laws.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with whom the mining executives said they had a close working relationship, released a final environmental impact statement in August that said the project as proposed would not result in “long-term changes in the health of commercial fisheries.” The Corps is expected to issue a record of decision soon on whether to grant a permit for the project. The PLP would still need to obtain state permits to begin construction.
According to PLP spokesperson Mike Heatwole the PLP has not yet reviewed the tapes, but what they have seen reported about those tapes to date is not inconsistent with the position that Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Partnership have taken for the past several years.
Heatwole said the PLP is seeking a permit to develop a mine with a 20-year life and if the project goes into production there would be potential for subsequent phases of development to be permitted in the future.
“However, we currently have no plans for any development beyond 20 years of mining,” he said.
Thiessen, on the other hand, said on one of the tapes that if growth of the mine past the scale currently applied for that it would be “unstoppable.” He told the investigator that “once you have something like this in production why would you want to stop?”
He acknowledged that the company envisions a project with a mine life of 180 to 200 years.
Those and multiple other comments are included in “The Pebble Tapes,” as EIA has dubbed them. The tapes, online at eia-global.org/reports/20200921-the-pebble-tapes, include comments about the PLP’s relationship with Dunleavy, the Corps of Engineers, Alaska’s U.S. senators, Alaska politics, the Trump administration and more.
Release of the tapes has outraged, but not surprised opponents of the mine, including a prominent former Republican Alaska legislator.
“They brag about an awful lot of things that are certainly not moral, whether they are legal or not,” said Rick Halford, former president of the Alaska Senate, and an outspoken opponent of the mine who has a home in the Bristol Bay region. “It is amazing that they are so arrogant as to say the things they are saying about the people they have influenced.”
Halford said that while the two executives talk about all the studies that were done, they don’t point out that those studies were done by companies that then walked away from Pebble. Those companies, said Halford, are not stupid.
The curtain has finally been pulled back, said Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, “on all or suspicions about Pebble’s undue influence in the permitting process.”
Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, expressed concern over taped comments of the relationship between the PLP and Alaska’s senators, whom she said the region has looked to for help in stopping the mine.
Said veteran Bristol Bay fisherman Robert Heyano, president of the UTBB board, “it is obvious that Pebble is selling the promise of false gold, with no concern for the lives, lands or waters they ruin in the process.”