Pebble Mine Tapes Confirm Risk of Disaster in Bristol Bay

Shocking videotapes reveal Canadian mining company CEOs boasting to hoped-for investors about influence over government officials to promote massive 200-year Bristol Bay mining scheme disguised for federal permitting as 20-year mine.

EIA - Pebble Tapes

Environmental Investigation Agency

I have one overriding question after watching the hour-long “Pebble Mine Tapes released yesterday by the Environmental Investigation Agency (“EIA”), a DC-based non-profit specializing in undercover investigations:

  • Why would anyone entrust the health and future of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery in Alaska’s Bristol Bay—and the communities and multi-billion dollar economy it sustains—to Tom Collier or Ron Thiessen, CEOs, respectively, of the failed Pebble Partnership and its underfunded Canadian parent Northern Dynasty Minerals (“Pebble”)?

In this latest evidence of incompetence and urgent financial stress that has dogged the beleaguered Pebble Mine for over a decade, the blatant duplicity and stunning lack of judgment displayed by Collier and Thiessen in secretly-videotaped meetings in August and September 2020 with two urgently-needed investors (actually EIA investigators) reach a new low, even in a project whose fortunes have plummeted steadily for over a decade. 

The Pebble executives are seen boasting about their political connections, demeaning Alaska’s elected officials, and confirming with virtual “100 percent” certainty that Pebble’s application for a 20 year mine permit is in fact just the first stage of its real plan for a sprawling 180 (to 200 years or more) mining plan.

The 20 year version of the Pebble Mine—the widely-condemned copper and gold mine proposed for southwest Alaska at the headwaters of the multi-billion-dollar Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery—is the focus of a federal permit proceeding before the Army Corps of Engineers in which Collier and Thiessen are hoping to receive a favorable permit decision before the November election. 

They aspire to do so despite intense, overwhelming, and sustained opposition for over a decade by 80 percent or more of the residents of the Bristol Bay region.

They aspire to do so in disregard of the devastation that the Pebble Mine would cause, destroying thousands of acres of pristine wetlands and over a hundred miles of streams—even if, as they have proposed in their 20 year permit application now pending, only ten percent of the ore is developed.

Notably, Collier and Thiessen make a mockery of their self-serving, high profile public statements about the need to keep politics out of the Pebble permitting processthe focus, in fact, of the company’s Fox News ad just a week ago. In fact, in the secret videotapes, they say nothing of their asserted interest in “science-based decision-making” and everything about their wide-reaching political connections and influenceat federal and state levels.

The tapes reveal this as the heart of their sales pitch in a desperate search for urgently needed cash to keep their failing project afloat long enough to get a permit and hopefully recruit some new investors, a new mining partner, or a buy-out.

The people of Bristol Bay aren’t buying it, and yesterday they demanded once again that their elected officials do something about it. According to Alannah Hurley United Tribes of Bristol Bay :

It’s disturbing to hear that Alaska’s senators have been playing politics with Bristol Bay. Our region looked to them for help in stopping a toxic mine that could destroy our communities and cultures, and these tapes indicate that they have only paid lip service to our cause, while allowing a corrupt and inadequate review process to continue. It’s time for the Alaska delegation to listen to their constituents, disavow this project, and help stop Pebble once and for all.

The commercial fishermen of the region agreed, and Katherine Carscallen, Executive Director of Commercial Fisherman for Bristol Bay had this to say:

These recordings have Pebble executives not just confirming the corruption we’ve always suspected, but literally bragging about how they’ve worked behind the scenes with Alaska’s leadership and government agencies to design a process that serves their company. If our Senators hope to restore any public trust in this process, now is the time.

Consider, for example, these excerpts of what the videotapes reveal (emphases added):

On the size and life of the mine (videotape 1) (NOTE: In October 2019, Collier testified in sworn congressional testimony that “Pebble has planned a smaller, smarter mine” and that it has “no current plans, in its application or in any other way, for expansion”):

Investigator: So, you mean that essentially once we are in, once the mine is starting producing employment, development, after that nobody’s gonna stop it?

Thiessen: No. Correct. And then those numbers from 2011—

Investigator: Do you think it’s gonna be unstoppable?

Thiessen: Yes. Well who’s gonna stop a mine that has 180—at a 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.

***

Investigator: So the likelihood is pretty much 100 percent almost?

Collier: Yes Yes we’ll need to get a federal permit and a state permit. We’ll need to go through those processes, but the processes will not be as intense nor as long as this process because you can build on what we’ve already done. Well I’m just saying that based on a 180,000 short tons a day of processing capacity, and we have 10 billion tons, that’s 180-year mine life. And we know that there’s more ore there so it’s probably gonna be more than 200 years.

***

Investigator: So all is already contained, all the expansion, all the key elements of the expansion are already contained in the current project.

Thiessen: Yes

Investigator: And that’s the plan? That’s really the objective?

Thiessen: That is the plan, and that’s because the northern corridor plan that was submitted as part of the Pebble permitting process really came out of effectively the work that was done to accommodate the PEA, so it already has that capacity in it.

***

Thiessen (videotape 9): Once the mine is finished, and remember this mine is not gonna be finished for 180, 200 years. So it [water treatment facilities] will be there.

On plan for multiple mines in the region (videotape 12):

Investigator: Yea, that’s exactly what I was about to say. So that would be, say, three, four – in reality what’s at stake here is three, four mines for a century in the region?

Thiessen: Yes

Investigator: Have you shared your plan or what the plan is about of having several other mines in pebble with the Army Corps? What have they said about that?

Thiessen: So… Yes, we have. More about the extension of the original mine to subsequent years. They took a look at downstream, the kinds of things that would need to be considered and they did take some of that into account but because we are only applying for a 20-year mine life most of this will be addressed sometime in the next 20 years.

Investigator: Mhmm. And it’s important to not make it public now I understand.

Thiessen: Yes. So we’ve, with respect to other mines, typically we share that information under the NDA with the other potential partners . . . . It’s a picture of the 425 square miles and it’s got a bunch of dots on it. Each one of those little dots represents potentially another mine site.

Investigator: And so the army corp when they made their decision, they took into account that. Its not Public but

Thiessen: Yes

Investigator: —ah. I understand So they are already thinking along your side guys on the big development expansion and are planning in this way?

Thiessen: Yes. Yes. . . .  

On Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy (videotape 3):

Thiessen: 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 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, yes. More government-to-government than necessarily ourselves, or lawyers talking to the lawyers in the White House.

Collier: And we would not be able to respond positively to this [August 24] letter we got today [from the Army Corps] if the state weren’t there as our partner moving forward with this plan. And they are, ok? And just to put a fine, fine note on that, just between us guys, I had a two-hour one-on-one meeting with the governor when all of this came up about a month ago to walk him through this, 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.

On Collier’s politics (videotape 7):

Collier: guys out. Let’s get rid of them. So I organized, I was one of a number of organizers of a business group, we got together, raised money, we put together a campaign and we defeated them all! We changed nine out of, there are let’s see 40 uh, 50 seats that were up for election and out of that 50 we threw out nine people that had not been supporting the governor and that had not been supporting Pebble.

On water treatment (videotape 9) (videotape 1)

Thiessen: Once the mine is finished, and remember this mine is not gonna be finished for 180, 200 years. So it [water treatment facilities] will be there. And obviously if you refurbish regularly, now we actually believe that this water that we gather up will qualify ultimately under environmental standards for discharge without treatment

***

Investigator: When the mines all done, finished, it fills with water and it’s just another lake. And in fact, it’d be a tiny lake. There’s a lake nearby us called Six Mile Lake because it’s six miles long. And Alaskans say that shouldn’t really qualify as a lake, it’s not big enough.

Investigator: So mining the valley would be really natural.

Thiessen: Yes. The northern corridor infrastructure part will handle

On Army Corps of Engineers review (videotape 4):

Thiessen: So Tom meets every week with the fellow that runs the Army Corps of Engineers in the region—he lives in Anchorage—his name’s Dave Hobbie. And James Fueg he talks almost every day to the colonel—it’s a lady—that runs the Army Corps of Engineers office in Anchorage, that actually did all of the technical work.

Investigator: Ok, so there is a good relationship.

Thiessen: Oh yes, very good relationship. And the same team from the Army Corps of Engineers that did the Donlin permit is doing the Pebble permit, and James ran permitting for Donlin, for NovaGold-Barrick on the Donlin mine and we hired him when that was finished.

But I have sat down with them, shown them what’s gonna be in the document that I’m gonna send to them. They are pleased with what’s there. They don’t see any problems with what’s there I believe that they’re going to approve it.

Investigator: Ok. But no guarantee, you mean? That’s what you’re saying?

Collier: Well there’s never a guarantee. There’s never a guarantee.

Investigator: But all the signals are pretty positive?

Collier: All the signals are very positive.

On northern transportation and infrastructure route (videotape 5):

Collier: And so now we’re going to be building a northern corridor. . . . It makes expansion much easier It makes the construction much easier. Just a bunch of things become easier. . . .

Investigator: And when you say it is easier for the expansion you mean post-20 years or…?

Collier: Yes post-20 years. Because we don’t have to, you know we just send more stuff through the pipeline. We don’t have more trucks, we don’t.. you know just more pipeline. So it’s perfect for that, essentially perfect for that.

On EPA veto of the mine (videotape 11):

Collier: His name is [EPA General Counsel] Matt Leopold. Now, just to make things as complicated as they could possibly be, which is the way American politics works, Matt Leopold has recently announced that he’s leaving his job as General Counsel of EPA. And it will be Matt’s deputy that will be making those decisions but we have confirmed this with both of them.

Investigator: So they are all in agreement that Pebble should go on?

Collier: And the interesting thing here about this decision that makes it better for us is if they do nothing, we prevail.

And there is more . . . . 

But suffice it to say that the elevation of political considerations over science revealed in the Pebble Tapes is unimpeachable confirmation of the political distortion that stakeholders across the ideological spectrum have observed first-hand in the Army Corps’ permitting process for the Pebble Mine

In the incompetent, self-interested hands of Tom Collier and Ron Thiessen, the Pebble Mine is a disaster in the making. They can’t be trusted with Bristol Bay’s future, and they must be stopped. The future of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery—and the communities and thriving economy that it sustains—must be protected, unruined. 

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

Western Director, Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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