Pebble Mine: Would You Buy a Used Car from This CEO?

Combative congressional testimony by D.C. lawyer and Pebble CEO Tom Collier belies credibility, dismisses Alaskans’ concerns for salmon, reveals major flaws in federal review of reckless Bristol Bay mining project

It’s been clear for some time that, in the case of Tom Collier, it’s sensible to be skeptical. To recognize that he says outlandish things in support of the destructive Pebble Mine—proposed to be built at the headwaters of the greatest wild sockeye salmon fishery on Earth—is an understatement, based on years of hyperbolic advocacy for a cash-strapped project whose major mining partners have all walked away.

Last week, at a well-attended hearing in Washington, D.C. before the Water Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Collier didn’t disappoint. Living up to his reputation, he demonstrated a glib propensity for denying significant risk, giving unjustified assurances, ignoring the mountain of negative comments from a wide range of stakeholders (including federal agencies), and dismissing the record of peer-reviewed science that has documented the potentially catastrophic consequences of permitting this particular mine, in this particular location.

Calling the Pebble project an “abomination," Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D. Ore.) made clear from the outset that the House committee wasn’t buying what Collier was selling. In one statement after another, the members laid out their concerns about the potential impacts of the Pebble Mine on the salmon fishery and on the people and communities that it sustains. As eloquently expressed by witness Alannah Hurley, representing the United Tribes of Bristol Bay:

This is a human rights issue. This is an indigenous people’s issue. This is an environmental justice issue for our people. If our land and water are devastated, our people are devastated. The Army Corps is not listening, . . . [and the company is] dismissive of our people’s concerns.  

Here, in no particular order, is just a snapshot of what Collier had to say:

Professional history

The first sentence of his biography submitted to the committee highlights his prior role as Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Interior during the Clinton Administration.

Notably never mentioned is that his former boss at Interior—then-Secretary Bruce Babbitt—is an outspoken critic of the Pebble Mine, calling it “the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place.” In this assessment Secretary Babbitt has been joined by EPA Administrators from the administrations of Nixon., Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Quality of Army Corps Draft EIS

On the first page of his written testimony, and at the outset of his oral testimony, Collier cited the draft Environmental Impact Statement (“DEIS”) prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers and dramatically asserted that “[t]he debate is now over,” because the Corps has “unequivocally concluded the project will not harm the Bristol Bay fishery.”

In fact, Collier’s is an isolated voice among a chorus of condemnation of the Corps’ review. In detailed comments, for example, the U.S. Department of the Interior cited numerous deficiencies, calling it “so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis” and urging that a “revised or supplemental [review] be prepared to resolve significant gaps in the document.”

According to EPA, the draft likely "underpredicts" the mine’s potential impacts on water quality, salmon, and air quality and does not "support a reasonable judgment" that the project will comply with the Clean Water Act. Contrary to the company’s assurances, the agency found that Pebble may have "substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts" on fisheries in Bristol Bay.

The National Marine Fisheries Service—responsible for protecting our fisheries resources—commented that the draft Essential Fish Habitat Assessment and the DEIS “do not adequately describe the current condition of the ground and surface water regimes in the vicinity of the proposed mine and the role that complex hydrologic processes play in supporting salmon populations. Accurately presenting the current baseline condition is necessary for a thorough analysis of the direct and cumulative impacts from dewatering the project site and adjacent areas while allowing discharges to the downstream waters.”

Tens of thousands of public comments echoed these federal agency concerns—from Bristol Bay tribes and other residents, scientists, commercial and recreational fishing companies and outfitters, restaurants and supermarket chains, and conservationists. Collier acknowledged none of them.

Failure to analyze containment dam failure

Representative Huffman (D. Ca.) asked about the failure of the DEIS to address a catastrophic containment failure of the kind experienced in recent years, for example, in Canada and Brazil. Collier’s response was terse and inaccurate: “This dam doesn’t hold any water. You know that, right? This is a dam that holds sand.”

But according to former Rio Tinto mining expert Richard Borden, the largest failure scenario considered in the DEIS was only .004% of the mine tailings—no more than a pipe break. Even with a cover, Borden explained, water will get into the tailings and “a majority or at least a significant minority of the tailings will retain water,” leading to liquefaction and slurry conditions.  

Failure to provide financial feasibility analysis

In the face of mining expert Borden’s estimate of a Net Present Value of negative $3 billion for the Pebble Mine currently proposed—in other words, the project is a huge financial loser at its proposed scale of just ten percent of the ore body—Collier once again offered nothing: “If it’s not financially viable, it’s not going to be built. And if it’s not going to be built, what the hell are we doing here today. . . . It’s going to make money going forward.”  

In fact, it’s no mystery why Collier refuses to produce a financial feasibility analysis despite repeated requests from a range of interests—including from the Army Corps’ contractor AECOM:

First, desperately-needed new investors would not be impressed by a money-losing project—that is, if they understand the economic realities, there likely won’t be any significant new investors.

Second, as Pebble has been telling potential investors, the opportunity at Pebble far exceeds the 10 percent of the ore body currently addressed in the permit application, and it is reasonably foreseeable that they don’t actually intend to leave the remaining ore in the ground. In other words, what Pebble is attempting to sell to investors is a project that far exceeds the scale and impacts of the current application, because it would be considerably more difficult to address the environmental risks of the larger mine before the initial phase has been permitted and begun. Called “a foot in the door” or “a Trojan horse,” its legal name is illegal segmentation.

Third, Collier has a significant personal financial incentive to pursue a permit even for an uneconomic project: Not only is he very well paid—CAN $2,357,744 total compensation in 2017 alone—but he has a $12.5 million bonus coming his way if he can get the project permitted next year, as he confirmed under questioning from Rep. Mucarsel-Powell (D. Fla.).

Thus, even if the project isn’t financially viable, and even if he ultimately is proven wrong in his assurance that, under his personal supervision, the Pebble project has been “de-risked,” Collier has powerful personal financial reasons—12.5 million reasons in his bonus alone—to advocate for its accelerated approval.

Comparison with Rosemont Mine environmental review

Collier was excited to cite the proposed Rosemont Mine in southern Arizona as an example of how EPA had previously declined Clean Water Act 404(c) review in favor of an EIS—in contrast to the agency’s decision to undertake 404(c) review of the Pebble Mine.

Collier neglected to mention that, in contrast to Pebble’s accelerated two and a half year permitting process, the Rosemont Mine application process took over 10 years—only to be blocked this past summer by a federal court based on its finding of “inherently flawed analysis from the inception of the Rosemont Mine.” The application was filed in July 2007, accepted by the permitting agency in February 2008, a draft Record of Decision and Final EIS were issued in December 2013, and a Final Record of Decision and FEIS were issued in December 2017.

Quality of EPA Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, Proposed Determination

Collier attacked yet again the comprehensive four year, twice-peer reviewed (and repeatedly noticed for public comment) Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (“BBWA”) and Proposed Determination, in which EPA found that even a mine significantly smaller than what is now proposed by Pebble would result in “irreparable” and “potentially catastrophic” harm to the Bristol Bay fishery. Calling the proposed determination “outrageous,” he asserted that the watershed assessment “was a pre-determined outcome and the process was manipulated to reach that outcome.”

In fact, based on an investigation that Pebble itself demanded, the Inspector General concluded otherwise: "Based on available information, we found no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted its assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed, or that the EPA predetermined the assessment outcome.” Collier knows, but failed to mention, any of this. See links to the report and further details here.

Quality of Pebble’s “independent” Cohen review

Collier waxed poetic about the so-called “independent” Pebble-funded William Cohen review of the EPA’s BBWA. Pebble paid for this additional review in the wake of the company’s disappointment with the Inspector General’s findings, cited above. According to Collier, “I think he (Cohen) captured it well.”

Collier liked the outcome but failed to mention that, in contrast to the multi-year, publicly-transparent, twice scientifically peer-reviewed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, Cohen’s Pebble-funded review was concluded in just six months, based on an undisclosed process, with an undisclosed list of witnesses, with no public engagement or comment, and without any science whatsoever. Cohen’s compensation, also undisclosed, was presumably at market rates and substantial. However worthless this study may be on the merits, it speaks volumes about Pebble’s distorted, self-interested concept of “independence.”

SEC Complaint

Several members of the committee asked Collier about the complaint recently filed with securities officials requesting an investigation into possible insider trading by Pebble shareholders based on alleged early communication of information about imminent EPA action favorable to the project. He denied it vehemently: “It’s just crap. There is no truth whatsoever to those claims and allegations.”

          Time will tell.

But meanwhile we can expect Tom Collier to continue arrogantly promoting his disingenuous narrative, as he did last week, that Pebble has listened to the people of Bristol Bay and “de-risked” the Pebble project. He will do so shamelessly while his failed partnership seeks to truncate and accelerate the very permit review process through which his claim might actually be tested. In fact, thus far neither Pebble nor the Army Corps has responded in any meaningful way to the litany of serious concerns about risk that have legitimately been raised for decades by the people who live there.

As he pursues his multi-million dollar bonus tied to an accelerated approval of the Pebble project, Collier’s combative assertions on the Hill last week have only confirmed that, for Pebble, facts don’t matter, and peer-reviewed science is just an obstacle to personal profit.

Tom Collier has no shame, and he is no one to trust.  

About the Authors

Joel Reynolds

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

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.