Chief Executive of Embattled Alaskan Mine Project Resigns
The chief executive of the partnership developing the Pebble Mine in Alaska resigned on Wednesday over comments made in meetings recorded by an environmental advocacy group.
In a statement, Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Pebble Limited Partnership’s Canada-based parent company, said the executive, Tom Collier, “embellished both his and the Pebble Partnership’s relationships with elected officials and federal representatives in Alaska.”
The comments were “offensive” to “political, business and community leaders in the state and for this, Northern Dynasty unreservedly apologizes to all Alaskans,” the company said.
The Pebble project, a major copper and gold mine that would be built in a remote part of Southwest Alaska, has been the subject of a long fight, with economic development forces on one side and, on the other, environmentalists and Native groups who are concerned about the damage to the region’s wild salmon fishery.
After an environmental review that found that the project would not cause long-term harm to fish populations, the United States Army Corps of Engineers is nearing a decision to grant a permit under the federal Clean Water Act, which would allow construction of the mine to proceed.
On Monday, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Environmental Investigation Agency, released video recordings of recent remote meetings between Mr. Collier; the chief executive of Northern Dynasty, Ronald W. Thiessen; and members of E.I.A. posing as potential investors.
In the recordings, Mr. Collier and Mr. Thiessen said they expected the project to eventually be much larger, and operate for many decades longer, than the proposal before the Corps of Engineers.
Among other comments, Mr. Collier said that a change in the transportation route to the mine that had been “forced on us by the Corps of Engineers” would eventually make expansion easier. “It actually worked out to our benefit,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Corps of Engineers in Alaska released a statement about the recordings, saying that it had “identified inaccuracies and falsehoods relating to the permit process and the relationship between our regulatory leadership and the applicant’s executives.”
But other comments, including remarks about the state’s two Republican senators and its Republican governor, forced the resignation of Mr. Collier, who was chief of staff to the secretary of the interior during the Clinton administration and had been hired in 2014 by the Pebble developers because of his expertise in the permitting process.
In the meetings, Mr. Collier described one of the senators, Lisa Murkowski, as trying to please both sides in the fight over Pebble.
“When she’s asked a question she says things that don’t sound supportive” of the project, Mr. Collier said, according to transcripts of the meetings provided by the environmental group.
“When it comes time to vote, when it comes time to do anything, she never does anything to hurt Pebble,” he added.
At a meeting in mid-September, Mr. Collier described Ms. Murkowski and the state’s other senator, Dan Sullivan, as “embarrassed” because, he claimed, they had misinterpreted a recent letter the Corps of Engineers had issued about the project.
That was a good thing, he said. “They’re just kind of sitting over in a corner and being quiet,” Mr. Collier said. “It couldn’t be a better thing for us because these guys, they can’t cause us a problem.”
Mr. Collier also boasted about his access to the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy. He also spoke of his success in raising money for Republican candidates in the state legislature and how he had led a campaign to get anti-Pebble lawmakers defeated.
In the statement, Mr. Thiessen of Northern Dynasty said the way that the recordings were obtained was unethical. But that “does not excuse the comments that were made or the crass way they were expressed,” he said.
Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a Native group long opposed to the mine, said the resignation “does nothing to address the deep-seated flaws and issues with the Pebble Mine’s rigged permitting processes and political influence.”
She said the process should be stopped and an investigation conducted “into what took place during Mr. Collier’s leadership.”
Northern Dynasty said it had named John Shively as interim chief executive. Mr. Shively served as the partnership’s chief executive before Mr. Collier, and has extensive experience in state government, working on natural resource issues.
“My priority is to advance our current plan through the regulatory process so we can prove to the state’s political leaders, regulatory officials and all Alaskans that we can meet the very high environmental standards expected of us,” Mr. Shively said.