I have to believe there's more than one reason Northern Dynasty Minerals and Pebble Limited Partnership have struggled to secure investors for a literal gold mine. Could one of them be that they're not quite as slick as they think they are?
[Editor's note: This editorial has been updated to include a response from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.]
A series of recorded video calls shows Pebble Limited CEO Tom Collier and Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ronald Thiessen detailing their access to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy's office, the White House chief of staff, the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as a confirmation of the partnership's plan to deceive the public through the permitting process and open a back door to a massive mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay region.
A Washington, D.C.-based organization called the Environmental Investigation Agency reports that its investigators posed as potential investors in the Pebble Mine via Northern Dynasty. The investigators held video calls with Collier and Thiessen, which the agency has published in a series called the Pebble Tapes.
"The tapes also reveal Pebble’s apparent plans to use the infrastructure included in its mine plan to open up other expansive [swaths] of western Alaska to mining, including through the activation of the Donlin Mine, a project that already has federal permits and could become economically viable overnight if the Pebble project is approved," says the EIA in its press release.
The Donlin Mine site is about 175 miles northwest of the Pebble deposit. The Army Corps staffer in charge of both permits, Thiessen says in one of the videos, meets with Collier regularly.
"The guy who runs the permitting process here in Anchorage, who has become somewhat of a friend," Collier says, referring to David Hobbie, chief of Alaska's regulatory division for the Corps. "I've known him for 25 years."
The tapes dropped on Monday, and on Tuesday evening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a short statement.
"We are aware of the Environmental Investigation Agency’s recorded conversations," said the press release from the Corps on Tuesday, Sept. 22. "Upon review of the transcripts, we have identified inaccuracies and falsehoods relating to the permit process and the relationship between our regulatory leadership and the applicant’s executives."
“We have the highest level of trust and confidence in the integrity of our regulatory team,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, Alaska District commander. “As we continue to work through this process, we will continue to uphold and follow applicable laws and regulations.”
In the videos, Collier also refers to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy as a personal friend, citing fundraising for political office, phone calls and dinners at the governor's mansion as the qualifications for the friendship.
Both Collier and Thiessen claim to have Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on the mine's side.
Thiessen says Murkowski "in her heart wants the project to go ahead."
"She threw a bone to those constituents that are against us in the committee report," Collier says of Murkwoski's commentary after killing a rider that would have blocked funding for Pebble Mine. "But when it really mattered, she didn't do anything."
At the same time, Collier makes no bones about insulting the Trump White House. "In this administration, there is no discipline, there is no accountability," he says, comparing Trump to Bill Clinton.
Thiessen explains, as has been speculated, that the Pebble Limited Partnership is intact "because an incorporated partnership in the United States is a very good structure from a liability standpoint but also tax efficiency... The liability stops at the Alaska corporation."
Local critics of the mine have testified that they believe Northern Dynasty set up a shell company to protect the parent company from liability if and when the mine fails and causes catastrophic and irreversible damage to wildlife habitat in the region, including world-renowned salmon runs, in Bristol Bay.
Thiessen spells out that Pebble Mines Corp. serves as the liability holder in the partnership, but holds only 1 percent of the asset. Whereas the limited liability partners have 99 percent of the asset but none of the liability, even going so far as to pledge "no liability" to the investigators, posing as potential investors in Northern Dynasty.
"You want to be careful with all this because it's all recorded," said Ron 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 [Collier] 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."
Yes, the White House has seen a nasty run-in or two with recordings. Richard Nixon's downfall was not that he behaved badly — most powerful people do, especially when there are billions of dollars at the end of the rainbow. But leprechauns can be tricky little imps. After all, greed corrupts. It may also cause a corrupted sense of arrogance.
Had Nixon not insisted on recording his own deceits, he may well have gotten away with them and simply been remembered as an environmentally friendly two-term Republican president. What could convince the leader of the free world to create his own incriminating evidence beyond the conceit of having gotten away with it for so long?
It reminds me of conversations with a child who insists that they don't need a helmet because they've never crashed their bike. It doesn't hurt until it does.
I also have to give a shout out to the pandemic for creating a justification to hold recordable video calls.
I also noted today that the Pebble Partnership website hasn't published a press release in nearly a month. A message to Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole went unanswered at press time.
But the news flowed from advocates for Bristol Bay.
“Today the curtain was finally pulled back on all our suspicions about Pebble’s undue influence in the permitting process,” said Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. “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.”
“The fact that state and federal authorities are supportive of Pebble’s efforts to manipulate the permitting process, and aiding the company in its efforts, shows just how rigged the system is," said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. "The government is ignoring its responsibility to its citizens and to our sovereign Tribal nations in Bristol Bay, and instead is working hand in hand with a foreign mining company to advance its interests at Bristol Bay’s expense. Pebble wants to permit a fantasy mine that ignores the mining and engineering realities of the mine site, terrain and deposit, and the government is assisting them in doing so."
“It is alarming to see just how corrupt and politically driven the Pebble permitting process has become, especially when you have more than 14,000 American jobs and our country’s top supplier of wild salmon on the line,” said Mike Friccero, a 40-year veteran Bristol Bay fisherman and fleet spokesman. "For years, Bristol Bay’s fishermen have been looking to Alaska’s senators for their leadership and action on this issue… If the senators hope to restore our faith in this process and in them, then we need a swift response and their support of a complete time-out of the Pebble permitting process.”