Undercover Hong Kong ‘investors’ dupe Pebble Mine execs, share private meetings describing political influence, vision for 180-year mine

Undercover "investors" recorded meetings with Pebble Mine executives, revealing details about...
Undercover "investors" recorded meetings with Pebble Mine executives, revealing details about the vision for the mine that were previously undisclosed.(Environmental Investigation Agency)
Published: Sep. 22, 2020 at 4:17 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Two men posing as high-level officials at a Hong Kong based investment group secretly recorded meetings with top executives of Pebble Mine, showing the company’s top leaders flaunting their political influence and their vision and intent to grow a much larger mine that could be developed for hundreds of years, among other details not previously publicly disclosed.

The recordings, dubbed the “Pebble Tapes,” were published by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international nongovernmental organization with offices in London and Washington, D.C.

The Pebble Partnership says the men claimed to be senior officials with the Wan Yuan Group in Hong Kong, a subsidiary of Beijing Capital Group, which Pebble describes as “a very large conglomerate and State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) under the Beijing municipal government.”

One was a native Mandarin speaker, and the other was a Frenchman who said he represented the Wan Yuan Group’s investments in timber assets in French-speaking Africa, according to Pebble.

“Both gentlemen demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of international business, capital finance and natural resources investment. They both received and promised to return signed Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) by early this week – and had given verbal agreement to the NDA’s prior to the conversations about Pebble,” a Pebble spokesperson said. “We have not heard from either of them since the story broke, nor do we expect to.”

The meetings included video calls and phone calls with Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier, and Ronald Thiessen, CEO of Pebble’s parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals.

The environmental group says it has been following the proposed Pebble Mine for years. It says the meetings took place on four dates from Aug. 17 through last Sunday.

The group says recordings were edited for brevity, organized by topic and the voices of the undercover investigators were rerecorded verbatim by an actor. The group says the meetings were recorded in compliance with applicable laws. It did not answer Alaska’s News Source’s inquiry about how much of the meetings were omitted from the published videos.

Nothing said by either Collier or Thiessen in the videos appears to definitively prove collusion or any other illegal act, but the narrative they then pitch the purported potential investors is, in some cases, directly opposite of the messaging Pebble publicly issues.

Politics in the Pebble permitting process

Last week, the Pebble Partnership ran an advertisement in which the narrator says, “President Trump, continue to stand tall and don’t let politics enter the Pebble Mine review process.” Soon after, President Donald Trump tweeted stating that were would be no politics in the Pebble Mine review process.

Previously, mine opponents have used records of Pebble spending millions of dollars on lobbying expenditures to highlight the company’s political activism, but the recordings include the executives explaining the extent of their involvement in detail.

“In North America, you work through lobbyists, who are law firms and you have relationships. I mean we can talk to the Chief of Staff of the White House any time we want,” Thiessen said in one recording. “You want to be careful with all this because it’s all recorded...You don’t want to be seen to be trying to exercise undue influence. It’s better for us if we want to push that envelope that Tom talks to the Governor of the State of Alaska and the Governor of the State of Alaska picks up the phone and calls the Chief of Staff to the White House. More government-to-government than necessarily ourselves, or lawyers talking to the lawyers in the White House.”

Collier says he considers the governor a personal friend and claims that though he is registered as undeclared, he held the largest private fundraiser for the governor at his home. He says the governor’s chief of staff, Ben Stevens, was on the Pebble Advisory Committee before he was selected to work in the administration, and that the two still speak frequently.

“Now in a lot of states, frankly, chief of staff is more important than the governor. The governor has to be out there playing politics and kissing babies, where the chief of staff is sitting at his desk running the state government. And that’s a guy who was on the Pebble Advisory Committee," Collier said.

Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office issued a statement denouncing Collier’s claims.

“The statements made in the videos by representatives from Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Limited Partnership, as assembled by an environmental group, misrepresent the Dunleavy administration’s role and stance on the Pebble Project,” the statement reads. "The individuals in those videos embellished their relationships with state and federal officials at all levels. Any claims that Governor Dunleavy contacted White House administration officials on behalf of that company are false.”

Collier, who was the chief of staff in the Department of the Interior in the Bill Clinton administration, also touted his influence in the recent primary election, where several incumbent Republican state representatives lost to more conservative opponents.

“It’s gonna make for dramatic change in the legislature here in Alaska and I was a leader in that effort for the Republican party so my Democratic politics is really not a problem,” Collier said. “Now having said that, it’s entirely possible that we may have Biden as a President, and if we do I’m gonna brush off my Democratic credentials and start using them a little more actively than I do.”

Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Pebble Limited Partnership told Alaska’s News Source in email, “While the views expressed were unfortunate, the bottom line is we have never sought political interference with the regulatory review process. The regulatory process has been and remains the place where decision about the project should be made.”

Pebble claims senators are ‘sitting over in a corner being quiet’

Congress does not have a direct role in Pebble receiving the permits it needs to develop the mine, but it could influence the timeline of the process. Last year, an amendment to a House bill would have prevented the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from using any funding for finishing the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project. That amendment was not included in the spending bill the Senate passed. In the recorded conversations, Collier cites that event as an example that Sen. Lisa Murkowski is secretly in support of the project and unwilling to take any against the project.

“Lisa Murkowski says I’ve got some questions about this Pebble project that I think need to be answered before it can move ahead. So she threw a bone to those constituents that are against us in the committee report but when it really mattered she didn’t do anything,” Collier said. “That’s the way Lisa Murkowski is, and frankly that’s the way a lot of senators and congressmen are in America is that they say things that satisfy one side of an issue but they don’t do anything that would hurt the other side of the issue. And that’s where Murkowski is.”

Last month, both Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan spoke out against the project following a release from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stating that the project could not be permitted as proposed. The release came the same time that the corps provided a written letter to Pebble given the company 90 days to provide a compensatory mitigation plan.

By statute, the Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue a record of decision on a Clean Water Act permit until 30 days after the Final Environmental Impact Statement is published. After the Final EIS was published, a spokesperson for the Pebble Partnership said he didn’t expect a record of decision for several more weeks, because the company still had to produce the compensatory mitigation plan.

However, when the Army Corps of Engineers officially demanded the plan and gave the company 90 days to produce it, mine opponents viewed the release as a win. Official statements from Alaska’s congressional delegation were not interpreted to be favorable for the project. One of the recorded calls took place on Aug. 24, the day the Army Corps of Engineers’ letter and release were being widely reported.

Collier and Thiessen tell the acting potential investor that the senators didn’t misinterpret the release, but that they read an inaccurate news article and are now embarrassed.

“They were wrong. They’re now embarrassed. Since it’s the political season they’re still trying to figure out what the hell they’re gonna do,” Collier said. “But an interesting sideline of that – and I wish I could have thought about this – but it’s kind of frozen them. They haven’t been able to say anything about Pebble since then because if they come out and say something, they’re gonna have to admit that they were wrong about what they did. So right now they’re just kind of sitting over in a corner and being quiet, OK? And that’s – if they stay there...”

“Perfect for permitting,” Thiessen interjected.

“Gosh, it couldn’t be a better thing for us because these guys – they can’t cause us a problem. This is not a process that involves U.S. senators. So we get to our ROD, whatever their position is, but if they’re not making bad news stories for us if they’re quiet,” Collier added.

The executives describe Murkowski as “unpredictable,” and explain the implications of Sullivan’s reelection campaign to the posing investors.

“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 ROD until after the election,’" Thiessen explained.

Collier also claimed that the fact the previous CEO of the Pebble Partnership, John Shively, rents an apartment from Sullivan’s state director indicates the company has a relationship with the senator and his staff.

In a statement Tuesday, Sullivan spokesperson Amanda Coyne addressed the tapes saying, “On August 24, Senator Sullivan issued a strong statement supporting the Administration’s decision that Pebble has not met the high bar required and ‘that a federal permit cannot be issued.’ Senator Sullivan stands by that clear statement—any suggestion otherwise by Tom Collier or anyone else is either wishful thinking, a blatant mischaracterization, or an irresponsible ploy to secure funding.

On the other piece of misinformation by Mr. Collier: John Shively does rent an apartment from Renee Reeve, however, he began renting that apartment well before Renee ever joined the Senator’s staff."

Murkowski’s office has not responded to a request for comment at the time of publishing.

Pebble’s vision and intent for the mine spans centuries

Aside from the details of the company’s interactions with government officials, the tapes also reveal the executives' intent to develop a mining district in the area and operate Pebble Mine for a life of 180 years.

The plan the company submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers for permitting includes a smaller footprint with only a 20-year life operational life span and would not use cyanide.

“We listened to the concerns that had been expressed by the agencies and we listened to the concerns that were expressed by the opponents, and I personally managed a total and complete redesign of this project,” Collier testified before Congress last October. “It’s smaller. There’s no cyanide. It’s out of the Upper Talarik creek. There are no Wasterock piles. Completely redesigned the tailings facilities and redesigned the water management system. This project is dramatically different from anything that was looked at by EPA in its Bristol Bay watershed assessment.”

The executives told the potential investors that once they have the permit for a 20-year mine, they would seek permits to continue the mine’s life and build other mines in the area.

Though the company has not publicly voiced its intent to expand, opponents of the mine have noted the possibility. Dennis McClerran, former Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 Administrator under President Barack Obama, testified in the same congressional hearing that permitting Pebble Mine would open up a new mining district because the infrastructure would be in place for other developments.

In the recorded meetings, the mining executives also explained that permitting Pebble is also good for the Donlin gold mine. Collier and Thiessen said that it’s not unrealistic for the two mines to eventually be connected to share infrastructure.

Tuesday afternoon the Army Corps of Engineers released a statement saying it was aware of the recordings and that it is committed to a fair and transparent process.

“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 Army Corps of Engineers release stated.

The videos, including those discussing the scope of the project, can be viewed here.

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