Following the resignation of Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier, a local representative with the Pebble Mine project fielded questions from members of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce about the mine’s path forward.
Collier resigned last month after the release of recordings in which he boasted of close relationships with elected officials, describing himself and Gov. Mike Dunleavy as “pretty good friends” and suggesting that Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan were in support of the project, the Associated Press reported.
The tapes were released by a Washington, D.C.-based group called the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“Well first of all, let’s address the elephant in the room,” Mark Hamilton, executive vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Partnership, said during his presentation on Wednesday. “Our former CEO was caught on tape talking about the project, elected officials and the United States Army Corps of Engineers in a way that was boastful, that was insensitive, and clearly embellished. That’s not the way we do business, and that’s not the way you do business. That person is gone, and we’re going to do the very best we can to try to reestablish the trust that we had built for a number of years.”
The Clarion asked Hamilton how Collier came to be the CEO of the Pebble Partnership if his words and actions were not reflective of the company as a whole, as Hamilton stated. Hamilton said he didn’t know.
“I guess you’d have to be on our side, listening to those tapes for the first time, with our mouths dropping open, asking ourselves exactly that question,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know. That’s not the way we do business and it’s disgraceful.”
Hamilton said during the presentation that he is still optimistic about the mine’s future, citing the Final Environmental Impact Statement released by the Army Corps of Engineers in June, which is an important step in acquiring the necessary state and federal permits to be able to construct and operate the mine.
The Corps, however, sent a letter to the Pebble Partnership on Aug. 20 stating that “Discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources and, preliminarily, that those adverse impacts would result in significant degradation to those aquatic resources.”
In the letter, the Corps called on Pebble to submit a compensatory mitigation plan within 90 days that addresses the “Unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources from discharges associated with the transportation corridor and the port site.”
Hamilton said that mine’s potential location presents unique challenges in creating a compensatory mitigation plan that meets the criteria required by the Corps.
There are no “mitigation banks” — or areas that have already been negatively impacted — for Pebble to restore as part of its compensation plan, and the “preservation of land” is the only way to address mitigation for large projects in Alaska, according to Hamilton’s presentation.
“What happens in the Lower 48, you can go in and build something and you can go to what’s been destroyed before by someone else who was here, and then you fix it, and you get credit for having fixed that,” Hamilton said. “We’re just really a beautiful, beautiful state, and there’s not a whole lot of mitigation out there to be done.”
Following the presentation, audience members quizzed Hamilton on the project. Some were critical of the company and the proposed mine, and others asked for details about the logistics of the project as it stands.
Clark Whitney, Jr., of Soldotna, voiced his opposition to the project and asked Hamilton why the project should go forward if there is potential for environmental damage, especially in the case of a tailings dam failure.
“What happens if the tailing dam fails? Will the company that does this be required to protect the interests of the state of Alaska in the case of a Mount Polley-type catastrophic failure? Will the mining company have to post a bond that will cover the destruction of all these small businesses, commercial fishermen, lodge owners. If it’s going to be such a boon, why is it that over 80% of the people in the Bristol Bay region are against this project?”
Hamilton said in response that the best-case scenario would be that no failures happen, which is the goal of the company.
“The best protection you have is that the event does not happen,” Hamilton said. “Making the project as foolproof as humanly possible is the protection, not the repayment.”
Jim Harpring, of Funny River, asked Hamilton to explain why the Pebble Mine should not be compared to the Mount Polley Mine, which experienced a dam breach in 2014 and sent tons of mine tailings into the nearby Polley Lake. Some critics of the Pebble Mine Project have cited the Mount Polley Mine incident as a reason not to move forward with the Pebble Project.
Hamilton said that, in the case of the Mount Polley Mine failure, poor oversight from the Canadian government was the real culprit.
“I don’t think we pay enough attention to the idea of continuous of monitoring by our regulators,” Hamilton said. “That is what allows us to have six active mines in Alaska that have not had any significant environmental damages, because they are monitored every single day.”
Ben Mohr, of Kenai, asked what sort of impacts the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s infrastructure would see, assuming the project goes forward. Hamilton said that was unclear at the moment.
“Those kinds of details have to wait for a couple things, one of which is what mine you’re going to end up having,” Hamilton said. “I think that answer will develop over time.”
Debbie Speakman, of Homer, asked where the raw copper, gold and other minerals would go after they are mined out of the area. Hamilton said that the minerals would be shipped to the “Far East” to be processed.
“It’s unfortunate, but I guess the only thing harder to build than a mine is a smelter,” Hamilton said.
Steve Schoonmaker, of Kasilof, asked why Alaskans should trust the Pebble Partnership going forward given the statements that were made by Collier.
“Where is the trust?” Schoonmaker said. “I can see that you feel that broken trust, so what do Alaskans have to base your honesty on?”
Hamilton said that if people no longer trust the company, they should at least trust the state and federal permitting process.
“We’ve got 11 agencies responsible for regulatory compliance, who have looked at this thing for almost three years,” Hamilton said. “That’s what we should trust. Not what Pebble said. Not what opponents have said. Let’s trust that process. If we don’t trust that process, we will end up eventually solving everything by rhetoric. It doesn’t matter if you trust me or if you trust Pebble, you ought to trust that process.”
The presentation ended before all questions could be answered, but Hamilton spoke individually with those who had unanswered questions after the presentation concluded.
The final environmental impact statement for the Pebble Mine Project is publicly available and can be found at pebbleprojecteis.com/documents/finaleis.