September 24, 2020 – I’ve written frequently about the consistent failure and relentless financial stress of Northern Dynasty Minerals (“Pebble”), the small Canadian company behind the massive Pebble Mine—a universally-condemned copper and gold mine proposed at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay Watershed, incubator for trillions of salmon in the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery.
But this week, Pebble’s fortunes descended to a shockingly new low when it became clear that the project they actually plan to build—a 200 year, 10 billion ton development—is not the project they have proposed in their application for a permit.
On Monday, the DC-based Environmental Investigations Agency (“EIA”) released undercover videotapes that were unflattering to say the least. They were tapes of meetings involving Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier and its parent company Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen. Two EIA investigators posed as Chinese investors interested in the Pebble Mine. These tapes are deeply embarrassing to Pebble because of their CEOs’ boastful and demeaning claims of political influence and manipulation of government officials—including Alaska’s Governor and two Senators—and a host of other claims.
But perhaps the most important revelation of the videotapes is their repeated, explicit contradiction of Pebble’s assertion that it has no plan whatsoever to mine beyond the 20-year limit stated in its application to the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s the essential legal position the company took in support of its application for a federal permit. In fact, as Collier and Thiessen repeatedly assure EIA’s investigators—their intended investors—on videotape, Pebble’s actual plan is to build a 180 to 200 year mine of ten times the size described in their permit application.
Over the last 48 hours, citing the videotapes, Pebble has been showered by an intensifying chorus of condemnation from government officials, disputing the claims by Collier and Thiessen of undue influence and questioning the legitimacy of their vastly expanded mine plan. Yesterday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee tweeted that the tapes, if verified, “suggest that Mr. Collier] misled our committee” when he testified that the only plan was for a 20-year mine and that “making false statements to Congress is very serious and will be addressed accordingly.”
In a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding, Collier resigned Wednesday afternoon. Northern Dynasty’s Ron Thiessen offered his “unreserved apologies” for the comments made and the “crass way they were expressed.” But he did not resign, despite his equally prominent role in the videotaped meetings.
Collier’s firing is unquestionably warranted but insufficient—a red herring intended to distract from the heart of the problem. However objectionable his actions, the heart of the problem isn’t Collier’s conduct, or even the company itself that hired and paid him to have and use the political connections he bragged about having and using—and then cut him loose for getting caught.
The fundamental problem captured by the EIA videotapes is that the permit application for the Pebble Mine is and has always been a deceit. While that application describes (and analyzes the environmental effects of) only a 20 year mine—affecting just ten percent of the projected ore body—Collier and Thiessen make clear to EIA’s investigators “100 percent” that their plan is actually for a vastly more destructive mine that will last 180 to 200 years or more, affecting the full 10 billion tons of the deposit and exponentially elevating the environmental harm. The expansion is, according to Thiessen, “unstoppable,” and that is indeed their “plan.”
As a direct result of this duplicity and misrepresentation, it is now undeniable that the entire permit proceeding—the permit review, the environmental impact statement, the public and government agency testimony and comments, and ultimately the decision by the Army Corps—has been rendered a futile and illegitimate exercise. As documented by the videotapes, the proceeding has been tainted by attempted political influence and corrupted by intentional misrepresentation of the very project for which permitting is being sought.
For, in effect, defrauding a federal permit process required by law, the remedy cannot be just to fire the applicant’s CEO. The law, basic fairness, and common sense require that the permit application be denied.
And we ask that the Army Corps do just that.
Joel Reynolds is Western Director, Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program at NRDC: www.nrdc.org