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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Corrected: Added tribal affiliation for the director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay 

The head of a proposed copper and gold mine near a prime Alaska salmon fishery has resigned after covertly filmed videos showed him talking about elected and regulatory officials and unreleased plans for the huge project.

Northern Dynasty, owner of Pebble Limited Partnership, announced the resignation of Pebble Limited CEO Tom Collier in a statement Wednesday.

The Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, this week released secretly recorded Zoom conversations between Collier, Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen and activists posing as investors. The conversations occurred in August and earlier this month.

In the videos, the mine developers describe their plans for a much bigger and longer-lasting mine than they’ve presented in the permitting process. They also claim their political connections are working to their benefit.

Mining opponents called the video evidence that company officials "lied to everyone" and said the project should be thrown out or at least significantly delayed for further review.

The Northern Dynasty board and senior management accepted Collier’s resignation and named longtime Alaskan John Shively the new CEO.

In its statement, Northern Dynasty said Collier’s comments “embellished both his and the Pebble Partnership’s relationships” with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and senior representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Thiessen, in a release Wednesday, slammed the environmental group’s tactics as unethical but said that doesn’t excuse the comments that were made. He apologized “to all those who were hurt or offended, and all Alaskans.”

Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole did not respond to questions about whether there were any calls within Northern Dynasty for Thiessen to resign.

The Army Corps said in a statement it reviewed the transcripts of the video, which the Environmental Investigation Agency released online, and identified “inaccuracies and falsehoods” made by the company officials regarding their relationships with regulatory employees.

“We have the highest level of trust and confidence in the integrity of our regulatory team,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, the corps’ Alaska district commander. “As we continue to work through this process, we will continue to uphold and follow applicable laws and regulations.”

Collier’s resignation comes as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is due to issue a decision on a key permit for the proposed copper-molybdenum-gold mine. Pebble Mine would be the largest such mine in North America and one of the largest in the world. The proposal has been controversial as it would put an open pit mine in the headwaters of one of the nation’s top fisheries, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

— Debating the science: A massive mine or the world's richest salmon fishery
‘Pebble Mine will impact subsistence’ 
— Donald Trump Jr. tweets opposition to Pebble Mine

Alaska Natives make up the majority of area residents. The fishery is their economic mainstay both because it puts salmon in their smokehouses and freezers, and due to the thousands of jobs it provides.

According to the company, if given the go-ahead to mine them, the precious metals would be worth an estimated $345 billion to $500 billion. The salmon fishery brings more than $300 million annually to the Alaska economy.

Videotaped Zoom talks

In the videotapes of the Zoom conversations, Thiessen and Collier explained the steps they’re taking to make the project “unstoppable.”

First, they said they came up with numbers — the size, amount of digging and processing, and operational lifespan — that would be most acceptable to regulatory agencies. In reality, they expect the mine will be much larger and last longer.

The proposed mine’s original footprint was about 16 to 18 square miles. By reducing the amount of ore processed every day, “that’s how we kept the footprint down to five-and-a-half square miles,” Thiessen said, according to a transcript.

Instead of a 20-year operation outlined in the environmental impact statement, he said, “it’s probably gonna be more than 200 years.”

Workers with the Pebble Mine project test drill in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamna, Alaska, in 2007. The battle over a copper and gold mine near one of the world's premiere salmon fisheries is headed to the ballot in a vote next week that has turned a normally sleepy local election into a national environmental debate. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)

Friends in the right places

Political connections have smoothed the way, Thiessen said.

Regarding connections to the White House, he said: “It’s better for us if we want to push that envelope that Tom [Collier] talks to the governor of the state of Alaska, and the governor of the state of Alaska picks up the phone and calls the chief of staff to the White House.”

Collier also talked about being close with the governor and holding Dunleavy’s “largest private fundraiser” at his home.

Thiessen said Pebble likewise has close relationships with federal employees who are processing the mine’s application under the Clean Water Act. They help the company by “giving us early advice, letting us know, no surprises, and with lots of time,” Thiessen said.

As for Alaska’s congressional delegation, they described Murkowski as a canny politician who has to please constituents on both sides.

“Lisa Murkowski says, ‘I’ve got some questions about this Pebble project that I think need to be answered before it can move ahead.’ So she threw a bone to those constituents that are against us in the committee report, but when it really mattered she didn’t do anything,” Thiessen said.

Murkowski responded in a statement saying she’s “dead set on a high bar for large-scale resource development in the Bristol Bay watershed,” according to the Anchorage Daily News. “The reality of this situation is the Pebble project has not met that bar and a permit cannot be issued to it.”

The governor’s office also released a statement saying: “Any claims that Gov. Dunleavy contacted White House administration officials on behalf of that company are false.”

In this March 19, 2020, file photo Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks with reporters following a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington. Murkowski acknowledged Thursday, June 4, that she’s “struggling” over whether she can support President Donald Trump given his handling of the virus and race crises shaking the United States. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Pebble Mine opposition

Opponents of the mine contend that because the developers said they are planning a much larger project than described in permitting applications, the proposal should get tossed out.

“You know, folks, you just can't make this stuff up. This has been a crazy and incredulous process from the start, and it just seems to get more bizarre every day,” said Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation CEO Norm Van Vactor. “The Pebble tapes, as they're now calling them, reinforce the fact that the process is beyond fixable and it's time to end the charade and follow what good science tells us.”

If Congress, the White House, and the state refuse to reject the project, at a minimum, the record of decision the Army Corps is slated to issue must be delayed, United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley, Yup'ik, said.

“I would say at this point, with what is undeniable evidence, that we are dealing with a company that has lied to everyone, that their permit application is really null and void because it doesn't capture what they actually plan to do,” Hurley told reporters Wednesday.

“If there is going to be a delay, a complete start-over of this process is warranted and needed to actually address the reality of the situation. Because what we're looking at now is not the realistic project that's being considered.”

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Joaqlin Estus is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today. Based in our Anchorage, Alaska bureau, she is a longtime journalist.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Corrected to add the tribal affiliation of United Tribes director.