A court fight over the Pebble prospect was put on hold for another week on Thursday as the parties continue settlement talks, even as an opposition group accused the company behind the project of trying to buy supporters.
Nunamta Aulukestai, a group of Alaska Native village corporations and tribes from the Bristol Bay region where the mine would be built, said Pebble Limited Partnership lured away its executive director, Kimberly Williams, to a post on an advisory committee the company is organizing.
"While unfortunate, it is not uncommon for Outside mining companies to try to influence local voices by offering jobs and other monetary rewards," the group said in a statement Thursday. "Pebble is resorting to desperate tactics to buy support for its mine."
Sharon Clark, a spokesperson for Nunamta, said Pebble project chair John Shively wrote a letter in April offering Williams a stipend, travel income and other benefits if she would join the committee.
On Monday, Williams sent an email to Nunamta members saying she would resign May 10 to take a position on Pebble's proposed advisory board, Clark said. The organization fired Williams that day and announced the development in a statement to reporters.
"We don't agree with that," Clark said. "For many years we have opposed any development within the Bristol Bay watershed, and we will continue to do that."
Williams could not be reached Thursday.
Clark said the goal of the advisory committee is to build the gold and copper mine.
Asked about the committee, Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole said Pebble is working on new initiatives for the project's next phase. He said he couldn't discuss the plans.
Heatwole said Pebble has not hired or retained Williams. But when asked directly in an email whether she had been offered a stipend, Heatwole replied: "We're still working out details on several initiatives and will be making announcements about them in the weeks and months ahead."
Pebble sued the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014, accusing it of trying to stop the massive project before it can be reviewed by permitting agencies.
Donald Trump's election as president, and his appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA head, has given Pebble hope it might be able to construct the mine.
The case, before U.S. District Judge Russel Holland, has been on hold since January while the EPA and the company, owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, pursued settlement talks. The pause was scheduled to end Thursday, but both parties sought another delay until May 11, noting they are close to finalizing "a likely framework for settlement."
Joel Reynolds, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said on Thursday he also had been offered a "nice stipend" to serve on the committee. He said the request in March came from Pebble CEO Tom Collier, in a meeting.
Collier said the committee would seek to gather input to make the project better, according to Reynolds.
On Thursday, Reynolds said Pebble is trying to persuade opponents.
"It's a very tried and true practice of large extraction companies to offer money to potential or actual opponents in hopes it softens the opposition or contributes to a building of the relationship," Reynolds said.
Reynolds, who calls the project "uniquely reckless," said he declined.