Sting: Pebble Mine Exec Caught Boasting About Political Influence

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Photo by Ingo Schulz on Unsplash

Two undercover environmentalists, posing as sophisticated senior executives of a Hong Kong investment group, made recordings that forced the resignation of the CEO of Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine Partnership, and left Gov. Mike Dunleavy and both of the state’s U.S. Senators scrambling to close a breach in their reputations.

The Environmental Investigative Agency on Monday released tapes in which Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier and Northern Dynasty Minerals CEO Ronald Thiessen boasted of their back channels to 49th State politicians and White House chief-of-staff Mark Meadows.

Collier was forced to quit. “Northern Dynasty unreservedly apologizes to all Alaskans,” said a statement from Pebble’s corporate parent.

The two mine developers also hinted that the promise of a 20-year operating life is duplicitous, and that the massive open pit project would open the door to other mines.  They spoke of mining in the area for 200 years.

The proposed copper and gold mine would be located cheek-to-jowl with the world’s largest, most productive sockeye salmon producing region, which supports 14,000 jobs.  Its bounty is shared by commercial salmon fishers from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, by Alaska natives, and by a sports fishing industry.

The Army Corps of Engineers is in the final stages of determining whether to issue a permit for the project, which would be one of the world’s largest mines.

Once upon a time, Collier was chief of staff to the Clinton administration’s environmentalist Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.  With investors on the phone, however, Thiessen spoke of Collier being in tight with Republican Gov. Dunleavy and his chief-of-staff Ben Stevens.

The tape is revealing of how influence peddling lobbyists operate in Trump-era America.

“I mean we can talk to the Chief of Staff at the White House any time we want,” Thiessen explained in the recording.  “You want to be careful with this because it’s all recorded. You don’t want to be seen trying to exercise undue influence. It’s better for us if we want to push that envelope that Tom 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 at the White House  More government-to-government than necessarily ourselves, or lawyers talking to the lawyers in the White House.”

An expansive Collier said he counts Dunleavy as a personal 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,” he said.  Collier noted that COS Stevens – a former Alaska State Senate president — was on the Pebble Advisory Committee before he went to work for the state.

In a hasty bid at damage control, the Pebble Partnership announced Collier’s departure along with mea culpas from Thiessen, whose Vancouver-based firm, has for years tried to win approval for the mine. Pebble conceded that Collier “embellished both his and Pebble Partnership’s relationship with elected officials and federal representatives in Alaska.”

“Any claims that Governor Dunleavy contacted White House administration officials on behalf of that company are false,” added the statement.

But there’s a lot of damage yet to control.  The recordings give evidence  to the way that Alaska politicians have long cozied up to, taken contributions from, and done the bidding of the 49th State’s oil, gas, timber and mining industries.

The Pebble Mine is not popular in Alaska.  It is viewed as threatening the Bristol Bay fishery.  The world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery sees a return of 30-50 million fish each year. The sport salmon fishery is enjoyed by the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, whose bachelor party was held on a river near Bristol Bay.

Collier and Thiessen argued that Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, were simply paying lip service in saying they are very concerned about potential harm to the environment and fisheries.  The senators have both criticized inadequacies in the Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statement, which concluded that the mine would pose no significant danger to the Bristol Bay salmon economy.

Sen. Murkowski “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, O.K?,” said Collier. Collier said that Sen. Sullivan is staying quiet and hoping “to ride out the election.”

“Sullivan’s going into his second (election) and so he’s got a battle on his hands, and we’re trying to work with him to make sure he doesn’t go and say something negative like – and he won’t say – ‘Don’t build the mine’, but he might say, ‘Don’t issue the approval’ until after the election,” Thiessen added.

Sullivan is facing an unexpectedly vigorous challenge from Democrat-backed independent candidate Al Gross, a surgeon-turned-fisherman.  Gross is already up with a TV spot using the description of his opponent as a mouse on the mine.

The senators have deployed a slurry of politician prose as defense against how they were described by Collier and Thiessen.

“Sen. Sullivan has been steadfast in keeping the permitting process an objective, rigorous, fair science-based review – free of politics – and he has consistently said we should not trade one resource for another,” said a statement out of Sullivan’s office.

“We now have a final (environmental impact statement) that shows Pebble will result in unavoidable significant degradation of the environment and doesn’t meet the high standards we demand for all resource development projects in Alaska. It’s clear that the company executives are floundering and that the project cannot be permitted.”

Sen. Murkowski furiously criticized studies, done by the Environmental Protection Agency Region X during the Obama administration, which found that the mine project would potentially have catastrophic impacts on the fishery.  The Obama administration sought to block the project using the Clean Water Act.

This week, however, the “Gentle Lady from Alaska” was singing a different tune.  “I am dead set on a high bar for large-scale resource development in the Bristol Bay watershed:  The reality of this is the Pebble Project has not met that bar and a permit cannot be issued to it,” Murkowski said in a statement.”

Sounds like they don’t want the mine.

Seeking to persuade the Hong Kong investors, Collier and Thiessen described their friendly relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers, whose EIS has been widely panned for low balling potential impacts of the mine. The ACE is also covering its behind, saying in a statement.  “Upon review of the (tape) transcripts, we have identified inaccuracies and falsehoods relating to the permit process and the relationship between our regulatory leadership and the applicant’s executives,” said the regulatory agency. 

The Corps is promising to maintain a “fair and transparent process.”

All told, this is the biggest black eye for Alaska’s power players since the “Corrupt Bastards” scandal, involving big payoffs to members of the Alaska Legislature, enveloped Juneau in 2006 while Ben Stevens was State Senate president. The open boasting by Pebble Mine executives has put the project in a deep pit.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Joel, your article asserts that “two undercover environmentalists, posing as sophisticated senior executives of a Hong Kong investment group, made recordings that forced the resignation of the CEO of Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine Partnership…

    ….AND LEAVING GOV. MIKE DUNLEAVY AND BOTH OF THE STATE’S US SENATORS SCRAMBLING TO CLOSE A BREACH IN THEIR REPUTATIONS.”

    I have questions about the part in capital letters.

    My questions are: “Isn’t it true that prospective investors are frequently lied to – so that they WILL invest?” “What percentage of readers will automatically assume that Collier was telling the truth about the Senators’ support for the Pebble Mine Partnership?” and “Will this story reduce Republican Senator Sullivan’s chance of winning another term in the US Senate – potentially giving Democrats control of his seat?” and “How did the reporters establish their identities as Hong Kong investors?”

    If you can answer any of these questions, let’s start a conversation (smile).

  2. Joel, this sounds like a political smear campaign by you. That is disappointing. You appear to have zero backup to your allegations that the republican politicians actually were on the take, or in the bag. You have one guy who likely was embellishing his connections or importance. That’s it, yet you attempt to smear all involved. In Alaska, where petroleum royalties are rapidly declining, a mine worth reported $300 billion+ will likely be approved. Perhaps the wiser course would be to insure that this mine is properly regulated to prevent a chance at disaster? It might be wiser to force them to adhere to all regulations regarding the operation of the mine.

  3. I spoke up because it’s SO easy to buy into tropes like: “Today, politicians rarely vote their conscience – they are merely to tools of their political party” or “Once in office, most politicians DO support their major fundraisers’ projects”. After reading this story, it dawned on me that I was assuming facts which the story did not supply. Joel – thanks for bringing this important story to our attention. I’m also grateful to the reporters at EIA. Because of their work, I’m pretty sure that there will be more scrutiny of this project, going forward. And that’s a good thing. I’ve hiked by old copper mines before (for example, the long-closed Holden mine above Lake Chelan). The damage done by “tailings” was depressing. Stunted trees and bushes. Water polluted by aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron and zinc. My last question is: Is there any evidence that modern regulation (and modern mining techniques) can stop this type of pollution?

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