Publicly, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources says it’s not involved with Pebble Limited Partnership’s application for a federal permit to dig an open-pit gold mine upstream from Bristol Bay.
But text messages and meeting notes – released in response to a public records request from mine opponents – show that behind the scenes, the leaders of the agency have been collaborating with Pebble to create the final piece of Pebble’s application.
“This will be a huge lift, but I have full confidence in this team,” Deputy DNR Commissioner Sara Longan wrote in a text to another DNR official on July 31.
She was talking about Pebble’s mitigation plan – how it will offset the damage the mine would do to wetlands and streams. Typically, mitigation involves restoring damaged land. If you want to pave a road over a swamp, for example, you might have to remove an old parking lot elsewhere and return it to nature.
In August, the Army Corps imposed a tough new condition on Pebble: The offset would have to take place within the same river drainage as the mine. Some said this created an impossible standard for Pebble to meet.
The newly released documents, which DNR provided in response to a request from SalmonState, show Pebble and the state knew about the new requirement weeks before the public did. The land near the mine is mostly state property, and the records suggest DNR officials adopted the challenge as their own.
“If you think I can help w mitigation ideas, let me know,” Longan texted a DNR colleague in mid-July.
A DNR spokesman said Thursday the department is neutral on the mine and hasn’t been working on the mitigation plan.
But Lindsey Bloom, a commercial fisherman who works on strategy for SalmonState, said the records confirm what mine opponents have long suspected and the state has repeatedly denied: that the state is working hand-in-hand with Pebble on winning approval for the project.
Bloom took note of how Longan began her July 31 text to Kyle Monsell, DNR’s head of permitting for large mines.
“(James) Fueg (Pebble’s vice president for permitting) will be calling you, will share input on recent mtg with GOA,” Longan wrote, using a common acronym for Governor of Alaska.
“Why is Pebble calling the Department of Natural Resources to relay information from the governor of Alaska, and all of this behind closed doors?” Bloom asked.
(DNR did not grant a request Thursday for an interview with Longan or Commissioner Corri Feige to discuss the documents.)
As Bloom sees it, it’s as though the chain of command for Alaska’s executive branch is routed through Pebble Limited Partnership.
The Department of Natural Resources has already faced allegations it is too cozy with Pebble.
In September, after Pebble executives were caught on tape bragging about how helpful DNR and Gov. Mike Dunleavy have been to the project, the department responded with a statement to the media. It said the mitigation plan is Pebble’s responsibility and that state officials had met with Pebble just to answer Pebble’s questions about land-use law and regulatory process.
“DNR cannot and did not provide guidance as to what options may or may not be acceptable to the Army Corps,” the September statement said.
Department of Natural Resources spokesman Dan Saddler is sticking by that. He described DNR’s role as helping Pebble understand the landscape — legal and physical.
“‘Here’s how many acres of wetlands there are, here’s where it’s located.’ That’s information we provide to people,” Saddler said. “That’s our job: to make state resources available and to answer questions about that.”
He said this week that DNR does not even have a copy of Pebble’s mitigation plan, which has not been made public.
The stack of documents DNR provided to SalmonState partially back him up: There are no draft copies of Pebble’s mitigation plan. But there are notes from meetings that undercut the appearance of government neutrality.
For example, an Aug. 4 meeting, which the notes say included the commissioners of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, as well as representatives of Pebble Limited Partnership.
“Next 45 days we need a plan with conceptual detail that PLP and DNR agree with for meeting mitigation requirements set by USACE,” the note reads, referring at the end to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It’s not clear from the notes whether this was a consensus statement or Pebble’s request, but it does suggest Pebble and state officials were working toward a common goal.