AdventureEnvironment

What the Hell Is Going on with the Pebble Mine?

It was a roller coaster of a summer for Alaska's most controversial extraction project. In July, it looked all but certain that the salmon-threatening proposal would get its first federal permit. But then things took a surprising turn.

Alaskan Native groups and fishermen believe an open-pit mine poses too great a threat to the ecosystem, not to mention the lives, culture, and $1.5 billion fishing economy that all depend on it. (Photo: Nick Hall/Cavan)
Salmon fisherman, Bristol Bay, Alaska, USA

When news broke in late September that Tom Collier, the CEO of Alaska’s long-stalled and highly controversial Pebble Mine project, was resigning after being ensnared in an environmental sting, it was just the latest shocking twist in the proposed mine’s yearslong saga of turnabouts and changes of fortune. 

The massive copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit is situated near the headwaters of two river systems that help sustain southwest Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay region and its legendary salmon run. Discovered over 30 years ago, its development has long been opposed by Native groups and fishermen, who believe an open-pit mine poses too great a threat to the ecosystem, not to mention the lives, culture, and $1.5 billion fishing economy that all depend on it. 

Since Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals acquired the rights to Pebble nearly two decades ago, residents and fishermen have lived in an uncomfortable purgatory, as the proposed mine’s prospects have waxed and waned and financial backers, governors, and presidents have come and gone. But even by this saga’s standards, the past few months have been remarkable, with twists and turns that include a cameo from Donald Trump Jr. and the release of secretly recorded video calls between mining-company executives and investigators posing as investors. Now, with Joe Biden committed to blocking the mine should he win, the fate of this pristine slice of Alaska may hinge, like so much else, on the presidential election. Here’s everything you need to know to catch up on what’s happened.

A New CEO, a New Administration, a New Life

In 2010, six Bristol Bay tribes petitioned the EPA to intervene and block the mine’s development, and after years of study and legal battles, the agency deemed the mine too great of a risk to the area’s salmon. By the middle of Barack Obama’s second presidential term, in 2014, the EPA was poised to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the project.

That’s when Washington, D.C., lawyer Tom Collier was hired as CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, the subsidiary responsible for developing the deposit for Northern Dynasty, which owns the mineral rights to the state-owned land. (The “partnership” part is a bit aspirational at this point: Northern Dynasty is the sole owner, after various mining-company partners abandoned the project.) Collier, a career Beltway insider, was tasked with trying to bring the project back from the brink by making the EPA problem go away. He orchestrated an extensive legal and lobbying strategy that succeeded in stalling the agency’s final decision in court just long enough to outlast the Obama administration. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Collier knew the favorable combination of a pro-extraction president and a muzzled EPA might not last, so he had one goal: to file a mine plan capable of attaining its first major permit by the end of Trump’s first term. To underscore that objective, filings show that if he achieved the permit within four years of applying for it, he’d be due an “extraordinary bonus” of $12.5 million on top of his nearly $2 million annual compensation.

“If it hadn’t been for the election of Trump, I firmly believe this project would have been dead in 2017,” says Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who has spent years directing the nonprofit’s fight against Pebble. “But Trump breathed new life into it.”

In December 2017, with the EPA action withdrawn, Pebble filed an application with the Army Corps of Engineers for its first federal permit, which would grant it permission to excavate and fill in wetlands. The application proposed a smaller, shorter-duration mine, operating at a shallower depth and extracting a tiny fraction of the deposit’s known reserves. The plan was designed, ostensibly, as a responsible alternative to the more ambitious proposals Pebble had floated in investor materials over the years. The corps then laid out what many observers saw as an alarmingly fast timeline for completing an environmental review for a project of this size and complexity, one that would enable it to wrap up before the end of Trump’s term. (By comparison, the review process for another controversial Alaskan mine project, Donlin Gold, took nearly six years.) 

From Pebble’s perspective, it was finally getting a fair shake, unimpeded by what it had seen as politically driven interference by the EPA, and the timeline seemed reasonable, a function of efficiency rather than urgency. “The corps has been able to do their work efficiently, largely because of all the work we put in ahead of time,” says Mike Heatwole, Pebble’s head of public affairs. “We have the information, and we’re able to work expeditiously on our end of it, so we’re not slowing things down, either.”

“I don’t think anyone anticipated the level to which we would be railroaded in this process,” said the executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

But to critics, the smaller plan seemed like a bait and switch, aimed at establishing a beachhead for a future larger mine, or even a district of many neighboring mines. The $8.6 million Pebble has spent on D.C. lobbyists since 2017 seemed further evidence of a politically driven process that felt rushed and wasn’t inclusive. Native voices, in particular, have felt marginalized throughout.

“From the get-go, our voices have been silenced and ignored,” says Alannah Hurley, the executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium that represents 15 tribes in the region. “But I don’t think anyone anticipated the level to which we would be railroaded in this process.” Concerns brought up by Native groups during and after the review process were disregarded she says, and there are reports of corps officials and contractors at one village meeting arguing with elders about disputed locations of culturally important sites and subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. “They were literally yelling at tribal leaders,” says Hurley. (A corps spokesman, when asked about the allegation, declined to comment.)

That brings us to mid-July 2020, when much of the region was preoccupied with a tense, pandemic-tinged, but ultimately successful fishing season—53.5 million salmon returned, and there were no big COVID outbreaks. On July 15, Pebble announced that the Army Corps of Engineers had finished its final draft of the Environmental Impact Statement, the project review that would form the basis for the corps’s decision to approve or deny Pebble’s permit. When the final EIS was published on July 24, it was a big day for Pebble, the culmination of its post-2017 effort, and it saw vindication. “From the beginning, we dedicated the time, resources, and technical work to ensure we had a project that could be done responsibly,” Collier said in a statement. “The final EIS for Pebble unequivocally shows it can be developed without harming salmon populations.”

A Surprising Turn

Northern Dynasty’s announcement of the positive EIS sent its stock price climbing for a week, but by the time the EIS was actually published, the price had already peaked and started falling. In fact, there have long been questions about the company’s economic fundamentals—a series of blue-chip mining companies have walked away from their partnerships with Northern Dynasty over the years. Northern Dynasty is a junior mining company, and an undercapitalized one at that, more suited to mineral exploration than full-scale mine development. Without the backing of a major, deep-pocketed company, there’s no way it could fund a mine-construction process that would cost at least $5 billion. “Its entire business plan is to get a permit from the corps and use that permit to get an investor,” says the NRDC’s Reynolds. “But the legitimate part of the industry is not interested.” 

Meanwhile, the science used to justify the mine, including in the final EIS, is hardly solid. “The document is a joke,” says Daniel Schindler, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, who has spent 24 summers studying Bristol Bay with the university’s Alaska Salmon Program. “It’s a three-ring circus, where science is basically a shroud behind which they’re playing politics.” He says the EIS is built on unsupported assumptions and, crucially, understates potential impacts and ignores the fact that refuse from the mine would have the potential to pollute the landscape, not just during the life span of the mine but forever after. 

These criticisms were largely ignored until the first week of August, when Pebble hit more turbulence, this time from an unexpected source: well-connected Republicans. First came an August 4 tweet from Nick Ayers, a former Mike Pence chief of staff and an avid fisherman, who said that he, “like millions of conservationists and sportsmen,” hoped the president would direct the EPA to block the mine. An hour later, this was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., who wrote, “As a sportsman who has spent plenty of time in the area I agree 100%. The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with.” It’s widely known that Trump Jr. is an avid fisherman, and lodge owners in Bristol Bay who have hosted him have periodically whispered that he might be a useful ally. But nobody expected him to publicly open a rift with his father’s administration. A slew of celebrity tweets and news coverage followed, many echoing what Jimmy Kimmel said when he became one of the 2,300 or so people to retweet Trump Jr.’s opinion: “I never thought I’d say this, but @DonaldTrumpJr is right.” When asked by reporters about the tweet, the president said his son “has some very strong opinions and he is very much of an environmentalist” and that he would “look at both sides of it,” which was itself a monumental shift.

“I never thought I’d say this, but @DonaldTrumpJr is right,” tweeted Jimmy Kimmel.

The hits kept coming. On August 8, Joe Biden came out against Pebble. “It’s no place for a mine,” he said in a statement. “The Obama-Biden administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.” More surprisingly, on August 14, Tucker Carlson aired an anti-Pebble segment on his Fox News show, featuring Johnny Morris, CEO of Bass Pro Shops, who also spoke out against it. As Carlson noted on air, Pebble is the rare environmental issue that doesn’t split cleanly along partisan lines. “Suddenly you are seeing a number of Republicans,” he said, “including some prominent ones, including some very conservative ones, saying, ‘Hold on, maybe Pebble Mine is not a good idea, maybe you should do whatever you can not to despoil nature, and maybe not all environmentalism is about climate.’” 

Would anything come of this? For a moment, it seemed like it. On August 22, Politico posted a story from a D.C.-based reporter headlined “Trump set to block controversial Alaska gold mine,” which claimed that early the following week, the administration would move to block the mine, according to six anonymous sources. What emerged two days later in a letter from the corps basically amounted to a request for a more rigorous plan for offsetting the mine’s impact on the thousands of acres of surrounding wetlands. It wasn’t nothing: it noted that the mine would cause “unavoidable adverse impacts” and “significant degradation,” which was harsher than anything the corps had said before, and it set what observers called a “high bar” for mitigation. But the company wasn’t surprised by the letter’s contents and was already working on a mitigation plan.

To hedge against further confusion, Pebble had been running ads on Fox News targeted at an audience of one. “President Trump, continue to stand tall, and don’t let politics enter the Pebble Mine review process,” said a spot that ran the night of September 16. It seems to have found its mark. At 10:20 P.M., Trump tweeted, “Don’t worry, wonderful and beautiful Alaska, there will be NO POLITICS in the Pebble Mine Review Process.”

The Sting

On September 21, The New York Times broke a story outlining a set of secret video recordings, known as the Pebble Tapes, which had been recorded over the previous two months by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Posing as overseas investors, EIA operatives captured video calls showing an overconfident Collier and Ron Thiessen, Northern Dynasty’s equally bullish CEO, saying all the quiet parts out loud: that the actual plan was to eventually mine the entire ore body rather than the smaller portion proposed, and to do so over the course of perhaps 200 years rather than 20. In their telling, the smaller mine was merely a temporary step to improve their chances of getting a permit. 

Most embarrassing, they made boastful claims about their closeness with and influence over all sorts of politicians and government officials. One person who came up was David Hobbie, director of regulatory affairs for the Alaska District and someone with strong influence over the final EIS. Collier called him “the decision maker” and said they met weekly and had become something close to friends. The corps issued a terse response to the EIA’s recordings, citing “inaccuracies and falsehoods relating to the permit process and the relationship between our regulatory leadership and the applicant’s executives.”

The tapes were damning. “I’ve been at this 40 years, and I’ve never seen this happen to the blatant extent that the tapes reveal,” says the NRDC’s Reynolds. “It’s a testament to the flaws in our permitting system that it takes a videotape to force people to come to terms with that basic fraud.”

The fallout was swift, and the fall guy was Collier. “Collier’s comments embellished both his and the Pebble Partnership’s relationships with elected officials and federal representatives in Alaska,” said a statement announcing Collier’s resignation. “The comments were clearly offensive to these and other political, business, and community leaders in the state, and for this, Northern Dynasty unreservedly apologizes to all Alaskans.” 

It was a blow to the company, but Thiessen remains in his position. He’s quoted in the same release saying that he plans to keep advancing the application and expects a decision on the permit this fall. 

For those dedicated to fighting the mine, what the tapes revealed seemed less “embellished” than unvarnished, the true Pebble finally come to light. “Collier is one symptom of the much greater problem of this company terrorizing Bristol Bay for almost 20 years now,” says Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “Getting rid of him does absolutely nothing to rectify the entrenched issues.” To her, the flawed permitting process and alleged political influence taint the process beyond repair. “At this point, a permit denial is clearly needed,” she says. “Nobody has faith that’s going to happen—the corps hasn’t changed course or addressed this as a real issue.”

What Comes Next 

Indeed, despite all the drama, the corps has tried to forge ahead, saying little. “The District is currently in the deliberative process of making a permit decision,” a spokesman emailed in response to my questions. “While doing so, it is inappropriate for us to comment on opinions, to speculate on potential outcomes of our deliberations in response to media inquiries.”

And though Pebble always seems to be running out of time or money (or both), the company plans to file the mitigation plan that the corps requested before the mid-November deadline, and the corps stands ready to receive it. The final EIS that so many stakeholders see as flawed is still the governing document, and Pebble, for its part, is sticking to its plan. “Throughout the course of this project, we’ve hit a lot of potholes or road bumps, and we find a way to keep pressing forward,” says Pebble spokesman Heatwole. “We want to get a positive decision from the corps, secure a partner, and get into state permitting. Those are our milestones.”

With any decision almost certain to lead to litigation, there won’t be any immediate moves, even if the corps does issue a decision this fall. But as the impact of the tapes has rippled outward, the controversy has managed to do something that Alaskans had not been able to: get their two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, on the record against Pebble after years of noncommittal fence-sitting. What that means remains to be seen, but they could help call for congressional investigations. They could also push through the appropriations bill to which the House attached an amendment that would cut off funding for the corps’s work on Pebble, effectively freezing the permit application. That bill could be taken up by the Senate as soon as December. And if the corps issues a positive final decision on the permit during a potential lame-duck period, the senators could support the EPA in taking steps to block Pebble. (It’s also worth noting that the Pebble Tapes have become a major issue in Sullivan’s surprisingly close reelection race against challenger Al Gross, a Democrat-leaning Independent.)

The lesson of Pebble may be that short-term political solutions are too tenuous to be relied on. “It’s clear we’re not dealing with agencies acting in the best interests of the American people, or in the way these systems are supposed to be working,” says Hurley. And that may be the biggest takeaway of all: that only in a broken system would regulatory decisions of this magnitude be influenced by a tweet from the president’s son or a well-placed ad on Fox News, or that they would require secret videos from eco-spies to get senators to finally take a public stance.

Pebble’s opponents are hoping that if November 3 goes well for the Democrats, the EPA will finally be empowered to find a way to permanently block the mine, whatever decision the corps makes on the permit. “This project needs to die definitively,” says Reynolds of the NRDC. His hope is that the EPA will resume its Clean Water Act review in a Biden presidency, but even an EPA veto of the project could, theoretically, be overturned in the future. So for protection that puts Bristol Bay beyond the reach of the shifting political winds, they’ll need to keep working toward a long-term preservation plan for the area. “I’m hoping we can put this to bed,” Reynolds says, “and create a political landscape in Alaska that allows Alaskans to decide how to permanently protect the national treasure that is Bristol Bay.”

UPDATE (Oct 29, 2020): After this article went to press, the EIA released additional tapes and emails revealing the extent to which Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen, who is still running the company, plays a hands-on role in every aspect of Pebble’s development, and made statements to EIA’s investigators that were every bit as outrageous as those made by former Pebble CEO Tom Collier. The new tapes include Thiessen discussing his influence over Alaska’s senators and pro-Pebble governor, and an assertion that he believes the state of Alaska would contribute roughly $1.5 billion of taxpayer money to assist in building infrastructure for the mine.

UPDATE (Nov 25, 2020): The Army Corps of Engineers decided today to deny the permit for the Pebble Mine saying “it it does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines” and calling the project “contrary to the public interest.” This latest twist in the saga will likely kill the proposed extraction project in the short term, but Pebble plans to appeal the decision, and the mine’s opponents are still hoping that the incoming Biden administration will consider more permanent protection for Bristol Bay.

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Lead Photo: Nick Hall/Cavan
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