Tom Collier exits Pebble Partnership after 'crass' and 'offensive' comments about senior US officials were revealed by secretly-recorded Pebble Tapes

Pebble mine - Northern Dynasty Minerals

The proposed Pebble mine in Alaska has drawn much controversy as it seeks a federal permit for a vast copper and gold resource (Credit: Northern Dynasty Minerals)

Tom Collier, chief executive of the controversial Pebble mining project in Alaska, has resigned over comments made about elected US officials in secret recordings dubbed the “Pebble Tapes”.

Conversations between Collier and environment activists posing as potential investors were made public this week, in which the executive discussed dealings with Alaska’s senators and governor, as well as regulatory officials in the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which has been appraising the mine project for federal approval.

Northern Dynasty Minerals, which owns the Pebble Partnership, said in a statement: “Collier’s comments embellished both his and the Pebble Partnership’s relationships with elected officials and federal representatives in Alaska, including Governor [Mike] Dunleavy, Senators [Lisa] Murkowski and [Dan] Sullivan and senior representatives of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

“The comments were clearly offensive to these and other political, business and community leaders in the state and for this Northern Dynasty unreservedly apologises to all Alaskans.”

Northern Dynasty’s CEO Ron Thiessen also featured in the recordings, which were made by the Washington-based advocacy group the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

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


Pebble Tapes allege political dealings with Senators Murkowski and Sullivan

In the Pebble Tapes, both Collier and Thiessen discuss Republican senators Murkowski and Sullivan, claiming that while they might make public comments expressing environmental concern over the project, their political support was expected.

The Pebble project has been touted as the world’s largest undeveloped resource of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver, but its proposed development near the prized Bristol Bay salmon-fishing area of south-west Alaska has attracted strong resistance from environmentalists and native Alaskans, who fear damage to the region and its waterways.

In the recordings, Thiessen said: “Senator Murkowski, she’s very political. She in her heart wants the project to go ahead. She will say things that appeal to sometimes people’s emotions but that won’t do any damage to the project overall. So Senator Murkowski we feel good about.

“This year, Senator Sullivan is up for [election], and he’s not as prestigious or long-serving. He’s got a battle on his hands and we’re trying to work with him to make sure he doesn’t go and say something negative.”

Collier added: “It’s an age-old practice where, when you have constituents, you have important people who support you on two sides of an issue, you try to find a way to satisfy them both.

“You don’t choose one or choose the other. The way that Senator Murkowski has done that is that when she’s asked a question she says things that don’t sound supportive of Pebble – but when it comes time to vote, when it comes time to do something, she never does anything to hurt Pebble.”


EIA says comments about scale and scope of Pebble mine ‘contradict’ public position

Other topics raised in the recordings include the proposed life of the mine and its potential expansion, as well as a potential collaboration with the nearby Donlin gold mine.

The EIA said suggestions made in the discussions that the Pebble project could be extended beyond a 20-year mine life and expanded to a daily production rate of above 180,000 tonnes contradict public statements about its planned scope and scale during the permit application process.

EIA Executive Director Alexander von Bismarck said: “These tapes show that potential investors are given an entirely different vision for this massive mine than the government and the public.

“The public, and especially the people of Alaska, should know about the scope of a project with permanent impacts on one of the most pristine ecosystems on Earth.”

Thiessen dismissed these claims, saying “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”.


Pebble Tapes are the latest twist in an ongoing permit saga

Last month, Northern Dynasty was dealt a blow to its permit application when the USACE said in a letter that the Pebble project could not be sanctioned “as currently proposed” due to potential environmental impacts to the Bristol Bay watershed.

In a review published just weeks earlier, the regulator had said there would be “no measurable effect” on fish populations.

The letter left Northern Dynasty with 90 days to explain how it would offset “unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources” in the surrounding area.

That timeframe would likely delay a final record of decision (ROD) on the project until after the presidential election in November.

President Donald Trump revived the Pebble project during his administration by reversing a block on the permit application, which had been enacted by predecessor Barack Obama in 2014.

But close allies of the president, including his son Donald Jr, have more recently voiced opposition to development, due to their connection with the famous fishing grounds.

John Shively, a former Pebble Partnership chief executive, has been appointed as interim CEO “pending a leadership search”. He said: “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.”