Congressional Report: Pebble Mine Owners Used ‘Bait and Switch’ Tactics

Image: Pebble Limited Partnership.

A new congressional report uses internal documents from the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) to allege that officials created a sham permitting scheme designed to evade regulations and develop an open pit mine in the Bristol Bay watershed.

The report was released in late October by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-CA, chair of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. They said they sent evidence of false statements to the Justice Department based on their findings.  

The report recommends that Congress prevent future attempts to undermine the federal permitting process by ensuring that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies have the authority, trained personnel and resources for consistent and rigorous oversight throughout the permitting and environmental review process.

The report further recommends reforming the Environmental Protection Agency’s project review processes to add scrutiny and ensure holistic review of cumulative impacts, while exploring legislative remedies for the Bristol Bay watershed beyond the 404(c) Clean Water Act actions currently under review with the EPA.

The report concluded that the PLP intended to build a mine with a lifespan of longer than 20 years, that former Chief Executive Officer Tom Collier lied to Congress that the PLP had no intention of expanding the mine beyond 20 years, and that the PLP deliberately sought to mislead regulators regarding the mine’s planned scope to circumvent the Clean Water Act.

PLP spokesman Mike Heatwole said in response that the PLP had not had time to fully review the 163-page report.

“However, to the extent the report contains any suggestion that we tried to mislead regulators in any way, it is categorically wrong and misinformed of the realities of the Pebble permitting process,” he said. 

According to Heatwole, the mine owners, a subsidiary of Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., were clear that the mine would have to be permitted in phases and that they planned to construct and operate an initial mine, abutting the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, for 20 years. 

The initial plan did not mine the entire resource and at some future time, officials would likely consider an expansion, he said.

The lengthy congressional report also drew comment from Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, who again called on the EPA to enact Clean Water Act 404(c) safeguards to protect Bristol Bay salmon habitat from potential adverse impacts from the proposed copper, gold and molybdenum mine.

“We hope the EPA recognizes this as further proof of the urgent need to finalize strong Clean Water Act protections for our lands and waters so they are safe from this toxic company once and for all,” she said. “The report makes clear that (the) Pebble executive’s testimony to Congress and other public communications were made in bad faith and (they) were knowingly engaging in “sham permitting,” she said.

Rep. DeFazio said that Collier had asserted before the congressional committee that he had “no current plan” to extend the life of the 20-year mine project for which they were seeking approval.

The report “exposes that claim as a shameless lie using PLP’s own internal communications and investor slide decks,” DeFazio said. “As a result, we are forwarding the evidence of Tom Collier’s false statements to Congress to the Attorney General’s office for further review.” 

The congressional report was based in part on letters DeFazio and Napolitano sent to the PLP in November 2020 requesting records about the proposed mine project after secret recordings of PLP’s senior leaders, known as the “Pebble Tapes,” were released.

Those recordings suggested that Congress, the Corps and the public may have been misled about the PLP’s planned scale, scope and duration of the mine. Collier resigned in September 2020. Later that year, the Corps opted to deny authorization for a key permit required for the mine.

“This is precisely why thorough environmental study and review cannot be brushed aside—not for the sake of expediency, undue pressure from an administration nor any other reason,” Napolitano said. “The truth is the Pebble LP executives deliberately sought to mislead regulators in order to avoid more robust environmental public review processes. This conduct is shameful and likely criminal.”