Pebble Mine: Northern Dynasty's Funding Woes Deepen
Share price in Canadian owner of reckless Bristol Bay mining scheme drops 75% in past year
Junior Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals was in San Francisco earlier this week, searching for new investors in the Pebble Mine. Proposed for construction in the headwaters of the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska—and condemned internationally as one of the most reckless projects anywhere—Pebble has already been abandoned by four major mining companies: Mitsubishi Corporation in 2011, Anglo American in 2013, Rio Tinto in 2014, and First Quantum Minerals in 2018.
This week, to a small crowd gathered at the Cambridge House International Silver and Gold Summit, Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen was on the hustings again. However surprised he may have been to see me walking the halls—we last met at Northern Dynasty’s annual shareholder meeting in Vancouver this summer—he had to be even more surprised by the appearance of Thomas Tilden, far from his home in Dillingham, Alaska.
Tilden is First Chief of the Curyung Tribe, a member of the board of the Bristol Bay Native Association (“BBNA”), a member of the board of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and Secretary of United Tribes of Bristol Bay (“UTBB”), which represents 15 villages and an estimated 77 percent of the residents of the Bristol Bay region. He is a life-long commercial and subsistence fisherman, and, along with United Tribes as an organization, he is a longtime opponent of the Pebble Mine.
As described by Thiessen in his 12-minute presentation, the proposed site of the massive mine “looks a lot like Kansas” and, contrary to opponents’ claims, the project would be good for Alaskans both economically and environmentally—a “new economic center in southwest Alaska” that not only “will not endanger the fisheries but it will enhance the fisheries.” While the reference to Kansas was puzzling—considering that the site in no way resembles Kansas in its hydrology, species, seismicity, topography, geology, soils, or anything other than the green color of its tundra cover—Thiessen’s assurance about economic and environmental benefit was flat out wrong.
The people of Alaska have overwhelmingly opposed the Pebble Mine precisely because it not only threatens the economic engine that has sustained its people for generations—the world class Bristol Bay fishery—but it threatens the environmental integrity of every aspect of the area that would be gouged from the region’s headwaters. According to the U.S. EPA’s comprehensive scientific risk assessment, the Pebble Mine threatens “irreparable” and potentially “catastrophic” harm to the region, its species, and its people. The notion that digging a massive open pit—a mile deep and a mile and a half wide—and generating billions of tons of contaminated waste, destroying over 3,000 acres of wetlands, disrupting countless salmon spawning streams, and exposing copper particles that poison the salmon at exposures of just 2-3 parts per billion over background levels—the notion that such a project could in any sense “enhance the fisheries” is manifestly absurd and, notably, did not generate a standing ovation or indeed any applause at all.
More importantly, Thiessen’s presentation did nothing to assuage the longstanding concerns of Thomas Tilden.
Tilden introduced himself, noting pointedly that in the presentation Thiessen had forgotten to mention the project’s opposition. When he responded by dismissing the extent of the opposition, Tilden cited a number of the leading groups, many of whom had just recently endorsed a message directed to Northern Dynasty through a full-page ad in the Vancouver Sun. Under the headline “No Means No,” the groups promised emphatically that “We will never relent in our fight against the Pebble Mine”—groups like UTBB, BBNA, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, and Sportsmen for Bristol Bay. And he included, too, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the largest native-owned developer in the region and long an opponent of the project.
Tilden mentioned that his father Red Tilden had been a miner in Alaska for decades and that, in the 1970’s, Thomas had himself written papers about mining. As recently as 2004, Tilden said, he’d been a potential supporter of the mine, but when he was unable to get a written commitment from the company that even 5 percent of the jobs would go to local residents, his enthusiasm waned. He heard evidence from a Northern Dynasty hydrologist about the intense connectivity of the hydrology around the site, and his support vanished. “Who was the hydrologist?” asked Thiessen.
For 20 minutes, they talked about a range of topics, from fisheries to jobs to potential infrastructure needs of the communities. While Tilden considers Thiessen “a likeable guy who comes across like he knows everything,” he went away convinced only that Thiessen doesn’t know enough—or anywhere near as much as his assurances might suggest.
There is, of course, no way to know what traction, if any, Thiessen and his colleagues will eventually get with potential investors at this event or others like it. Notably, the stock is down over 76% this year alone. And it is indisputable that each of the Pebble partners associated with Northern Dynasty at some point over the past decade has chosen, for reasons of economic self-interest, to walk away. For Anglo American, Rio Tinto, and First Quantum Minerals, that decision required that they abandon a significant financial investment, but it was a cost they were willing to pay.
Thomas Tilden is only the most recent leader from Bristol Bay to re-affirm the overwhelming opposition of Alaskans to the Pebble Mine. As their recent full-page ad unequivocally expressed:
We will never relent in our fight against the Pebble Mine. Because Bristol Bay, Alaska is a national treasure, and its people, wildlife, and the greatest wild salmon fishery on earth depend on it.