A Secret Recording Of Mining Executives Is Shaking Up The Alaska Senate Race

Dr. Al Gross, an independent, has argued that Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) is insufficiently opposed to a proposed mineral mine.
Mine executives said they were counting on Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), left, who is being by challenged by Dr. Al Gross, an
Mine executives said they were counting on Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), left, who is being by challenged by Dr. Al Gross, an independent, to remain silent about Pebble Mine.

An environmental group’s secret recording of executives trying to construct a mine in an ecologically sensitive part of Alaska has become a major issue in Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan’s reelection battle.

The video, released Monday, shows an undercover investigator for the Environmental Investigation Agency posing as an investor in a video conversation with Tom Collier, then-CEO of Pebble Partnership, and Ron Thiessen, a Pebble board member. 

Pebble Partnership, which is owned by the Canadian mining firm Northern Dynasties, has been trying to construct an open-pit copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska near Bristol Bay. Many environmentalists, commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives oppose the construction of the Pebble Mine on the grounds that it would endanger the ecosystem of the Bristol Bay salmon fisheries, a major source of jobs for Alaska.

In the conversation, Collier and Thiessen, who is also CEO of Northern Dynasties, downplay the concerns that Alaska Sens. Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski have expressed about the mine.

Referring to Sullivan’s reelection battle, Thiessen said, “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 [Record of Decision] until after the election.’”

“Oh, my God,” the investigator said. “Can he do that?”

“He can say that, but would it have any impact? It depends on whether [President Donald] Trump feels he’s going to lose,” Thiessen said. “Sullivan’s a Republican senator, and is it important that he gets elected? If he says ‘Delay the [Record of Decision],’ will that help him get elected?”

“Right now, he’s off in a corner being quiet,” Collier added. “So I think that’s our plan to work with him ― is leave him alone and let him be quiet.”

Sullivan’s former state director told Pebble’s board chairman John Shively, to whom the former aide rents an apartment, that Sullivan intends to say little about the project one way or another ahead of the November election, Collier said on the video.

“He’s going to try to ride out the election and remain quiet,” Collier said.

Sullivan responded to the recording with outrage.

“I unequivocally stand by my August 24 statement that Pebble does not meet the high standards we demand for all resource development projects in Alaska, and that the project cannot be permitted,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Any suggestion otherwise is either wishful thinking, a blatant mischaracterization, or a desperate attempt to secure funding for a mine that cannot move forward.”

This incident demonstrates how far Mr. Collier, who has serious credibility problems of his own, is floundering in the face of this project’s overwhelming challenges. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska)

“This incident demonstrates how far Mr. Collier, who has serious credibility problems of his own, is floundering in the face of this project’s overwhelming challenges,” Sullivan added.

When the Army Corps of Engineers announced in late August that the proposed Pebble Mine needed to do more to meet federal environmental standards, Murkowski and Sullivan jointly issued statements affirming the report’s conclusion that the mine proposal had not met the necessary standards for approval.

Dr. Al Gross, a Democratic-aligned independent running to unseat Sullivan, had been, even before the recording, blasting Sullivan for failing to explicitly oppose the mine’s construction. Sullivan opposed the Obama administration’s preemptive veto of the proposed mine and supported allowing it to go through the federal permitting process.

“These tapes make clear that Dan Sullivan does not care about Alaskans ― all he cares about is winning his next election,” Gross, a commercial fisherman and retired orthopedic surgeon, said in a statement. “He should be ashamed of himself.” 

Gross also began airing a 30-second TV ad on Wednesday that features a key excerpt from the Environmental Investigation Agency’s video to argue that Sullivan is secretly a supporter of the mine. “Dan Sullivan hides his support for Pebble Mine,” the ad’s narrator says.

In addition, the Gross campaign is calling on Sullivan to return the donations he received from Collier. Collier, who resigned Wednesday from Pebble Partners amid the fallout from the leaked recording, has contributed $6,400 to Sullivan’s campaigns since 2017.

The Sullivan campaign called Gross’s ad inaccurate, but it did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the call to return Collier’s money.

“This ad continues to highlight the great lengths Al Gross and his liberal Lower 48 donors will go to distort and truth,” Sullivan campaign manager Matt Shuckerow said in a statement.

“Senator Sullivan has made his position well known,” Shuckerow added. “Senator Sullivan does not believe the Pebble Project should move forward; it should not be permitted.”

An aerial photo of Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. The area is home to the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in t
An aerial photo of Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. The area is home to the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

Pebble Mine was controversial from the moment it became a credible proposal in 2005. The late Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican who represented Alaska from 1968 to 2008 and still looms large over state politics, bitterly opposed the mine before his death in a plane crash in 2010.

Critics of the proposed mine fear that the destruction of wetlands, as well as the geological extraction techniques associated with extracting the minerals, would jeopardize the health of the salmon in Bristol Bay. 

Collier’s and Thiessen’s remarks in the recordings have only exacerbated those concerns. Although Collier told Congress in October that the company has no plans to seek expansion beyond its current permit request, the two executives told the undercover environmental investigator that once they received their first permit, they expected that the economic benefits of the mine would grease the skids for greater expansion going forward. “I bet you that the state’s going to be hounding on us to do an expansion before we’re ready,” Collier predicted.

Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. The fishery supports nearly 15,000 jobs, according to a 2018 study commissioned by commercial fishing and Native Alaskan groups. 

Environmentalists fear that opening Bristol Bay to resource extraction will resign the regions to the same fate as other salmon-rich areas across the world that have been depleted by overfishing, climate change and other calamities. Washington state, for example, has spent $1 billion trying to replenish its salmon fishery over a 20-year period, with limited success.

It is unclear what effect the recordings will have on the Senate race, however, in an independent-minded state that nonetheless relies heavily on resource extraction and skews conservative when it comes to business regulation.

Salmon State, an Alaska-based salmon conservation group opposed to the Pebble Mine, is a nonprofit that does not weigh in on elections. Still, Mary Catharine Martin, a spokesperson for Salmon State, said Pebble Mine is “something that Alaskans are paying attention to.”

“Both of our senators need to get out of the corner and go to bat for the residents of Bristol Bay,” Martin said.