By Michelle Graff
An aerial view of part of the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska. The CEO of an embattled gold mining project proposed for the region resigned after tapes surfaced of him talking about lobbying politicians and bragging about his friendship with the state’s governor.
Vancouver, B.C.—The head of the company that’s been battling for years to build a large copper and gold mine in Alaska has resigned over remarks he made about the state’s top politicians in tapes secretly recorded by an environmental group.

Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier is no longer at the helm of the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive open-pit copper and gold mine in the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska that, if built, would be the largest mine in North America.

Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., Pebble’s Canada-based parent company, has been pushing to build the mine for over a decade, claiming it’s a much-needed economic driver for the state, while environmentalists and Native Alaskans say it will damage the area’s pristine ecosystem.

A number of jewelry retailers came out against the mine almost immediately after plans were announced in 2008, vowing never to buy gold from Pebble if it was built.

The most vocal among them has been Tiffany & Co., which has taken out full-page newspaper ads to express its objections to the project.

Currently, Pebble is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on issuing the project a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, the major federal permit needed to greenlight construction of the mine.

Nelli Williams, Alaska director for Trout Unlimited, a community of anglers that works to protect rivers and streams nationwide and runs the Save Bristol Bay campaign, said the Corps’ decision is expected in the next few weeks.

Collier’s remarks came to light last week in videos secretly recorded by members of a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group called the Environmental Investigation Agency and now known as “The Pebble Tapes.”

Posing as potential investors in the mine, EIA members got Collier and Ron Thiessen—who remains the CEO of Northern Dynasty—on tape talking about lobbying both state and federal politicians, and detailing a project that is much larger, and would be operational for much longer, than the 20-year mine life plan currently in front of the Corps.

In one video, Collier tells the faux investor about his allegedly close relationship with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“The governor I count as a friend. I did, in my home, the largest private fundraiser for the governor when he was running for office, and it’s not unusual for the governor to call me … I’ve flown down to Juneau, where the governor’s mansion is, and had private dinners with him in the mansion. So the governor and I are pretty good friends.”

In its statement on Collier’s resignation, Northern Dynasty claimed Collier “embellished” both his and the company’s relationships with politicians and senior representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but apologized for the content of the recordings.

“The unethical manner in which these tapes were acquired does not excuse the comments that were made, or the crass way they were expressed,” Thiessen said. “On behalf of the company and our employees, I offer my unreserved apology to all those who were hurt or offended, and all Alaskans.”

He also pushed back on claims the tapes prove Pebble has a defined plan to expand the life of the mine beyond 20 years.

“What we have said consistently, and is reinforced in the ‘Pebble Tapes,’ is the operator of the Pebble mine may decide at some point in the future to propose additional phases of development, but there exists no formal plan to do so today,” Thiessen said, adding that adding extension or expansion of the project would require additional permitting.

But Williams, with Trout Unlimited and Save Bristol Bay, said the tapes make it clear that Pebble is planning a mine that goes beyond the 20 years proposed in its application to the Corps. The permitting process should be looking at the potential impacts of a 180-year mine, not a 20-year mine.

She said both Pebble Limited Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals have been trying to deceive Alaskans for years on this issue.

“Nothing about their dishonestly has changed with Tom Collier resigning,” Williams said, calling his resignation a “distraction from the heart of the issue.”

The tapes can be heard on the Environmental Investigation Agency’s website.

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