Health care was the issue that pushed Dr. Al Gross to challenge Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who is running for a second term. But fisheries has been the hot-button issue as this senate race draws to a close.
Gross, from Juneau, has fished his whole life. His mother was the first executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.
Sullivan has the backing of the United Fishermen of Alaska in this race, though that declaration came in June, before much of the political fallout that has put Gross within striking distance of the seat. Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers endorsed Sullivan on Oct. 7. Gross is endorsed by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which has been an outspoken and vehement critic of the proposed Pebble Mine.
An Oct. 10 debate between the candidates hosted by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce and ComFish via Zoom saw Pebble Mine rear its head in the first 10 minutes.
"The Pebble Mine is dead. I'll keep it that way. I've worked hard to ensure that the federal decision-making process was based on science and data and not politics," said Sullivan.
"Dan, you've had nine years to come out against the Pebble Mine, and you know it," Gross retorted. "And you waited until you were publicly shamed… and Tom Collier was caught on tape talking about you hiding in a corner. You facilitated permitting when you were commissioner of Natural Resources, and you stood on the sidelines in the corner, letting the mine process go ahead," Gross added, referencing the former Pebble CEO Collier's quip in the controversial Pebble Tapes that Sullivan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski were avoiding speaking out on Pebble Mine by staying in the shadows.
The series of recorded calls exposed Pebble Ltd. and Northern Dynasty top executives confirming long-rumored contradictions in the scale of their mining plan and using Alaska Gov. Dunleavy as a foil for federal communications. Collier boasted about his friendship with Dunleavy and his ability to procure political donations. He resigned from his role as CEO on Sept. 23, two days after the tapes were released.
"You've taken $35,000 worth of campaign contributions from the Pebble Mine executives and subsidiaries of the Pebble Mine," Gross lobbed at Sullivan. "You should give back the money, Dan."
In early October, public filings revealed that Sullivan had received more than $34,000 in campaign contributions from Pebble Mine executives and employees, as well as from Northern Dynasty and its lobbyists, since 2017. That tally includes $7,400 from Collier.
"We went through a process where I made sure Alaskan voices were heard," Sullivan said. "My statement against the Pebble Mine was way before these tapes." "This project is dead, and it's not gonna move forward."
Murkowski and Sullivan released a joint public statement on Aug. 24 in which they both expressed support for mining first and softened declarations against the mine without opposing the mine itself.
Murkwoski clarified that Pebble was not acceptable "as permitted," possibly leaving room for another shot. Sullivan did not criticize the mine or the plan, but rather expressed support for the Trump administration's decision.
Sullivan for his part also specifically mentioned the Donlin Mine, which became embroiled in the Pebble Tapes controversy when Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ronald Thiessen claimed the Pebble permit could be used as a back door to activate the Donlin Mine, which has a federal permit.
The Donlin Mine site is about 175 miles northwest of the Pebble deposit and would become economically feasible overnight, according to Thiessen. The Army Corps staffer in charge of both permits, Thiessen says in one of the videos, meets with Collier regularly.