Alaska governor and senators accuse Pebble mine executives of embellishment and untruths in recorded calls

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state’s U.S. senators Tuesday sharply criticized Pebble mine executives after an environmental group released secretly recorded video meetings of the executives describing their connections to the politicians.

In a statement, Dunleavy’s office said the executives “embellished their relationships with state and federal officials at all levels.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan accused the executives of multiple fabrications, adding “it’s clear that the company executives are floundering.”

And Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she’s not sitting “quiet in the corner” to allow the Pebble project to move ahead, as a Pebble executive said.

The videos, released on Monday, were recorded by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental group, using people hired to pose as potential investors in the mine. The online meetings occurred in August and September of this year.

[Earlier coverage: In recordings, Pebble executives discuss influence over Gov. Mike Dunleavy and one day expanding the mine]

In the videos, Pebble CEO Tom Collier and Ron Thiessen, president of Pebble parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals, described Pebble as having easy access to Dunleavy’s office.


They also said Republican Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan are simply making political points when they express reservations about the project.

Collier and Thiessen could not be reached for comment.

The proposed copper and gold mine would be built 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, near headwaters of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Critics say the mine, if built, will endanger the fishery. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is weighing a key construction permit for the project.

In the tapes, Collier called Dunleavy his friend and said it’s not unusual for the governor to call him. Collier said he organized the largest private fundraiser for Dunleavy as he ran for office.

He pointed out that Ben Stevens, the governor’s chief of staff, served on Pebble’s advisory committee before the governor got elected.

The “state of Alaska is every bit as supportive if not more supportive of us as each day goes by,” Collier said in one of the recordings.

Dunleavy’s office said Tuesday that "the individuals in those videos embellished their relationships with state and federal officials at all levels,” according to a statement provided by spokesman Jeff Turner. They also "misrepresent the Dunleavy administration’s role and stance on the Pebble Project,” the governor’s office said.

[Trump tweet promising ‘NO POLITICS’ in Pebble mine decision echoes ad on Fox News paid for by developer]

In the videos, Thiessen described a strategy he said Pebble uses to reach White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Rather than Collier reaching the White House, it’s better for Collier to talk with Dunleavy, who can make that call to the chief of staff, Thiessen said.

Untrue, the governor’s office said.

“Any claims that Gov. Dunleavy contacted White House administration officials on behalf of that company are false,” the statement said.

“Gov. Dunleavy’s position has been unequivocal on this issue from his first day in office,” the governor’s office said. “All resource development projects go through a rigorous environmental and permitting process by the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies."

“The Pebble Limited Partnership has not submitted a project for the State of Alaska to review at this point,” the governor’s office said. "If a plan is submitted it will also undergo a vigorous review process.”

The tapes also show the executives saying they believe Murkowski and Sullivan were being political when they said in August that the Corps can’t permit the mine because it hasn’t met regulatory standards.

In one video, Thiessen said Pebble is trying to work with Sullivan so the senator doesn’t say anything that could harm Pebble’s effort to receive a permit from the Corps.

“Sullivan’s going into his second (election) and so 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 like – and he won’t say ‘Don’t build the mine,’ but he might say, ‘Don’t issue the (final decision) until after the election,’” Thiessen said.

Wrong, Sullivan’s office said on Tuesday.


“Maybe in his imagination, but not in reality," Sullivan’s office said. “This is yet another fabrication.”

“Sen. Sullivan has been steadfast in keeping the permitting process an objective, rigorous, fair, science-based review – free of politics – and he has consistently said we should not trade one resource for another. We now have a final (environmental report) that shows Pebble will result in unavoidable significant degradation of the environment, and doesn’t meet the high standards we demand for all resource development projects in Alaska.”

“It’s clear that the company executives are floundering and that the project cannot be permitted,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s office on Monday said any suggestion by Collier or anyone that he has changed his views against a permit is “either wishful thinking, a blatant mischaracterization, or an irresponsible ploy to secure funding.”

In one recording, Collier said the senators were wrong to say, based on a news story, that the Trump administration would delay the project. He said Murkowski and Sullivan are now “embarrassed” and “frozen,” sitting quietly in a corner.

Collier also suggested Murkowski is only talk when she makes statements that don’t support Pebble. In fact, when it’s time to vote, she never does anything to hurt Pebble, he said.

Murkowski on Monday also issued a sharply worded statement.

“I am not ‘embarrassed’ by my statement on it and I will not be ‘quiet in the corner,'" the senator said in response to the videos. "I am dead set on a high bar for large-scale resource development in the Bristol Bay watershed. The reality of this situation is the Pebble project has not met that bar and a permit cannot be issued to it.”


The Corps also sought to clarify the record on Tuesday, after Collier and Thiessen in one of the recordings discussed their relationship with Corps officials, which they described as friendly.

“Upon review of the transcripts, we have identified inaccuracies and falsehoods relating to the permit process and the relationship between our regulatory leadership and the applicant’s executives,” the report said.

The Corps said it will maintain a “fair and transparent process.”

“We have the highest level of trust and confidence in the integrity of our regulatory team,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, Alaska District commander. “As we continue to work through this process, we will continue to uphold and follow applicable laws and regulations.”

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.