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Pebble mine critics say text messages reveal the state is helping the project. A state official says the texts have been misinterpreted.

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: November 24, 2020
  • Published November 24, 2020

Text messages and other public records released by the state to a conservation group appear to show the Dunleavy administration supporting the proposed Pebble mine’s efforts to secure a key construction permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mine critics say.

SalmonState campaign strategist Lindsey Bloom said the documents her group received under a public records request show that the administration supports Pebble, though Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has repeatedly declined to publicly express a position on the controversial project.

One of the texts SalmonState is concerned with includes a state official saying, “We can do this, but it will take the Corp supporting us, also. We can talk more, but I think (Pebble) is onto a good approach.”

The conservation group provided the records to news media last week. SalmonState received dozens of documents, including text conversations and meeting descriptions, Bloom said.

Dan Saddler, a spokesman with the state Department of Natural Resources, said the agency properly provided information about state laws and procedures at Pebble’s request.

“DNR has engaged with the Pebble project proponents just as it would with any potential project applicant in the regular course of the department’s operations,” Saddler said.

He said the released records have been misinterpreted, and that some people who don’t understand DNR processes might jump to false conclusions.

Pebble last week submitted the final report required for a Corps permit. Pebble must show the Corps how it will protect wetlands in the Bristol Bay region to offset damage from the mine. Experts have said the revised mitigation plan will require large amounts of state land, and will be difficult to achieve.

Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, who oppose the mine, signed a letter on Tuesday to Northern Dynasty Minerals, parent company of mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership, asking the company to release the mitigation plan because much of the public has lost trust in the project’s plans.

“Releasing the mitigation plan will provide needed transparency about what is at stake with this project,” the letter said. “Alaskans deserve to know what Northern Dynasty proposes to do to compensate for Pebble’s impacts — including what would be required from the State of Alaska, the Alaska State Legislature, and others.”

A Corps spokesman has said the agency will release the plan once it is determined to “be compliant with applicable regulations.”

The state records released to SalmonState include a July 31 text from Sara Longan, a deputy commissioner of Natural Resources, to Kyle Moselle, head of the Alaska Office of Project Management and Permitting, revealing that Pebble’s vice president of permitting will soon be calling to share input on a recent meeting with the governor.

“There will be a big push for mitigation on state lands, as you know, and not much time to develop a ‘plan,’” Longan texted. “We can do this, but it will take the Corp supporting us, also. We can talk more, but I think (the Pebble Limited Partnership) is onto a good approach.”

Longan did not return requests seeking comment for this article. Moselle referred questions to Saddler.

Saddler said that as a public agency, DNR must respond to people and groups seeking to use state resources such as Pebble. Pebble is expected to begin applying for state permits if the Corps issues a permit.

Saddler has previously said DNR officials have met four times with Pebble personnel at their request. Pebble needed to understand state laws and policies so they could meet minimum requirements to provide a revised plan to the Corps, Saddler said.

Saddler said Longan’s text has been taken out of context by critics of the mine.

Saddler provided the following explanations for Longan’s text:

• Longan knew Pebble faced a deadline, and there was “not much time” to educate project officials about state laws, Saddler said.

• A “big lift” meant the state had a big task to educate Pebble.

• “We can do this” expressed the agency’s confidence that the state can fulfill that educational task.

• “I think (Pebble) is onto a good approach” meant that Pebble is going down the right path by reaching out to the state to learn more about state laws and policies that can help protect wetlands.

The newly released records have added fuel to Pebble critics who argue that actions by Dunleavy and his administration, including a CNN report indicating he used of ghostwritten language from Pebble in letters to the Corps and potential Pebble investors last year, reveal his true stance.

SalmonState’s request for records came several days after the release of the so-called “Pebble Tapes” in September that revealed the now-former head of Pebble, Tom Collier, and Ronald Thiessen, president of Northern Dynasty, discussing the project’s ties with Dunleavy and others.

The taped meetings were secretly recorded in August and September and released by a conservation group that hired people to pose as potential Pebble investors.

In the tapes, Thiessen said Dunleavy “is very much onside with resource development, Pebble in particular.”

Collier said in the tapes that he had a “two-hour one-on-one meeting with the governor” to get his commitment about the mitigation plan, with the idea of creating a preserve in the Bristol Bay region on state land.

Now “we’re working with his Department of Natural Resources and they are being very cooperative in working this through with us,” Collier said in the tapes.

Dunleavy’s office and others discussed in the tapes, including Sullivan and Murkowski, have broadly dismissed the statements by the executives as false.

Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesman, said Pebble has met with DNR staff a handful of times “to clarify our understanding of state land management processes and regulations to make sure that anything we submit to the (Corps) is correct in describing those processes and regulations. They are the landowner and the experts on land protection mechanisms under state law.”

Bloom said the newly released records validate what Collier said in the tapes about close connections to the Dunleavy administration. They show the governor supports Pebble.

“Why is a Pebble employee relaying information about a governor’s meeting to staff at DNR, rather than the governor’s office (doing that),” Bloom said.

Dan Cheyette, vice president of lands for Bristol Bay Native Corp., which opposes Pebble, said the texts and other records show the Dunleavy administration is not neutral on the mine.

“His administration continues in complete lockstep with (Pebble Limited) and is trying to advance the project for a Corps permit,” he said.

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