Audio and video released yesterday by the nonprofit Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) show chief executives of the Canadian Pebble Partnership and its parent Northern Dynasty Minerals bragging about their backdoor connections to high-ranking politicians and directly contradicting public statements and official permit applications in regard to the size and duration of the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. While the developers have consistently promised a small mine operating for no more than 20 years, including on their Clean Water Act permit application, to EIA investigators posing as potential investors they painted a wildly different picture.
“Who’s going to stop a mine that does 160,000 metric tons per day? The first deposit that we’ve discovered at Pebble—and there will be more—but the first one lasts 180 years,” Ronald Thiessen, CEO of Northern Dynasty Minerals, said on video. “In America there’s not a single major mine, and there certainly isn’t a major oilfield, that didn’t start out small, smaller than it has grown. And there have been constant expansions that have been suggested and approved. And that’s what would happen here.”
That contradicts testimony submitted to Congress saying, “Pebble has no current plans, in this application or in any other way, for expansion.”
These “Pebble Tapes” also reveal the Pebble Partnership’s previously undisclosed aspirations to use the roads and infrastructure built for the Pebble Mine to establish a massive mining district throughout the Bristol Bay region and across western Alaska. The Donlin Mine, an approved and permitted large-scale gold mine to be located on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel 175 miles north of the Pebble Deposit, could immediately become viable if they built a road connecting the two mines, Thiessen said. Most of that land currently exists as untrammeled wilderness, a paradise for hunters and anglers. This development and associated pollution could crush the flourishing commercial, recreational, and tribal subsistence salmon fishing economy in the region, valued at $1.5 billion per year.
Thiessen and Pebble CEO Tom Collier were also caught bragging to the undercover investigators of their cozy relationships with the White House, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Alaska’s Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, Army Corps and EPA regulators, and other political appointees in the Trump Administration. Many of these relationships appear to have been bought with intensive lobbying efforts and massive campaign contributions.
“I mean, we can talk to the Chief of Staff of the White House any time we want,” Thiessen said. “You don’t want to be seen to be trying to exercise undue influence. 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.
“The governor [Dunleavy] I count as a friend. I did in my home the largest private fundraiser for the governor when he was running for office and it’s not unusual for the governor to call me.”
Thiessen went on to explain how Alaska, one of few states without an income tax, is in desperate financial straits with recent declines in oil prices—its primary source of revenue. He predicted that Alaska might go bankrupt within a few years. Mining revenue could be how Dunleavy makes up the difference, Thiessen said.
“And we’re the biggest game in town with respect to that, so they’re really supporting us because of their monetary needs,” Thiessen said. “I had a two-hour, one-on-one meeting with the governor…to get his commitment that they would be there, and now we’re working with his department of natural resources and they are being very cooperative in working this through with us.”
The Pebble executives also made it clear that they also feel in control of Alaska’s Senate delegates, including popular Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
“Sen. Murkowski, she’s very political. She in her heart wants the project to go ahead. She will say things that appeal to sometimes people’s emotions, but that won’t do any damage to the project overall,” Thiessen said. “It’s an age-old practice where, when you have constituents, you have important people who support you on two sides of an issue, you try to find a way to satisfy them both. The way that Sen. Murkowski has done that is that when she’s asked a question she says things that don’t sound supportive of Pebble—but when it comes time to vote, when it comes time to do something, she never does anything to hurt Pebble, OK?”
Thiessen gave a specific example of a rider on an appropriations bill that came out of the House of Representatives last year that would have not allowed federal funding to be used in the Pebble permitting process, which would have killed the mine. Instead, that bill died in Murkowski’s committee in the Senate—by design, Thiessen says. He also counts Sen. Dan Sullivan and Alaska’s at-large congressman, Rep. Don Young, as allies.
Despite the confidence in their political position and connections to insiders at the EPA and Army Corps, Collier seemed a bit baffled by the innerworkings of the Trump Administration, especially their recent dismissal of Pebble’s Clean Water Act permit.
“I think you guys know that I used to work for President Clinton…so I have a sense of how government is supposed to work,” Collier said. “Those of us who have that kind of experience in government are just flabbergasted frankly at the way this administration works. The left hand often doesn’t know what the right hands doing.”
They are, however, confident that the current administration’s EPA will not veto their project as many conservationists are demanding.
“EPA has indicated its clear intent to not veto this process,” Collier said. “And again, even if they decided they wanted to, they don’t have a scientific record that justifies it. So, we’re in—practically there’s no risk that the Trump EPA is going to veto. There’s just no risk.”
The Pebble Partnership did not reply to a request for comment, but spokesman Mike Heatwole called into question the legality of these surreptitious recordings to the Anchorage Daily News.
“I do think that anytime an interviewer from a made-up ‘investigative agency’ misrepresents who they are when they schedule an interview, then secretly tapes the interview without the knowledge of their subject, and then goes on to obscure their identity after the interview is broadcast, you have to know there are some pretty questionable ethics at play,” Heatwole said. “We don’t know who has paid them or who they work for. We certainly intend to find out though, and to determine if any laws were broken by this despicable and abusive tactic.”
Executive Director of the Environmental Investigations Agency Alexander Von Bismarck claims that his organization didn’t break any laws when they captured the videos in August and September of 2020.
Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico joined other lawmakers in condemning the mine developers after the release of the incendiary Pebble Tapes. “These are serious allegations. There need to be an investigation. Lying to Congress is a serious crime,” Heinrich tweeted Monday.
The conservation community responded in outrage to these revelations.
“We are shocked at the depth and breadth of Pebble’s deception,” said Rachel James, Bristol Bay campaign coordinator for SalmonState. “From their manipulation of the Alaska governor’s office, to the truth of their plan for a massive 200-year mine, to cozy relationships with the Army Corps and EPA political appointees, it’s clear they will stop at nothing in their plans to build a toxic mega-mine at the headwaters of the greatest sockeye salmon run left on the planet.”
James continued: “For now, one thing is clear: The Pebble Partnership is counting on Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan’s continued silence about Pebble’s lies to Alaskans, and on the senators doing nothing to stop the corruption outlined in these shocking tapes. It is time for Alaska’s senators to stand with the people of Bristol Bay and the majority of Alaskans in calling for an EPA veto to this toxic, deceitful project.”