TOM COLLIER IS BUCKLED INTO THE BACK of a six-seat AS350 Helicopter, racing over the lowland bluffs of southwest Alaska. Clad in a black Helly Hansen jacket and baseball hat bearing the word Pebble, he doesn’t exactly look at ease, though he’ll later claim otherwise. When the chopper banks south, he reaches awkwardly for the ceiling, desperate for something to grab.
Soon we pass over the Newhalen River, a rushing white torrent, then cut into the rolling hills of the Nushagak and Kvichak river drainages. The two waterways are among the wildest left in the United States, and their watersheds form a sea of tundra sedge and skinny water that produces about half of the sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska. It’s one of the few intact, fully functioning salmon ecosystems left on Earth, and Collier, chief executive of the Pebble Partnership, has ambitious plans for the area’s future: to dig a mine that’s deeper than the Empire State Building is tall.
In 2014, the Pebble Partnership enlisted Collier to drag the so-called Pebble Mine across the finish line. Set in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the proposed site sits atop the largest-known undeveloped deposit of copper and gold in the world—a mother lode that could be worth some $40 billion over the project’s 20-year duration. The minerals are the sort that keeps modern life from grinding to a halt; they’ll end up in iPhones and electric cars, wind turbines and wristwatches. With a draft environmental-impact statement for the project’s Clean Water Act permit due in January, Collier is just a stride or two away from accomplishing his goal of unearthing this fortune and ending one of the most contentious environmental sagas of the past quarter century.
That the mine has reached this point is largely to Collier’s credit. In just a few short years, he has managed to take a project that many considered dead and resurrect it through canny politicking, legal maneuvering, and his overseeing a mine redesign that he says addresses the many environmental concerns leveled against it.
But local tribes; commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen; and dozens of highly vocal environmental groups doubt almost everything about Collier’s plan. For nearly two decades, they’ve argued that the mine would spell death to the sockeye salmon—62 million of which migrated back to Bristol Bay in 2018, making it the world’s largest red salmon run—and destroy a rural Alaskan way of life. They’re concerned about how much water the mine will draw from nearby creeks; the possibility of polluted water being pumped into area rivers; the effects of the mine’s sprawling infrastructure; and the possibility that the project could clear a way for more mines to be built across the region.
“Wrong mine, wrong place,” says Brian Kraft, a fly-fishing guide and owner of Alaska Sportsman Lodge, on the Kvichak River. Man and salmon coexist in Bristol Bay, even with a substantial commercial-fishing industry. “But you start chipping away at the environment,” he says, “with a scratch here, a nick there, and it turns into a death by a thousand cuts. Pebble will bring that. The whole ecosystem could collapse.
Collier, a stocky guy of 67, dismisses such concerns. Which is somewhat surprising, given that, in the 1990s, he served as chief of staff to Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary under President Bill Clinton. “Look,” Collier said wearily before our helicopter ride, lifting his tan Wayfarers and rubbing his eyes, “you don’t invest nearly a billion dollars in a project if there’s a risk you’re wrong about the fundamental science.” He compares people who are worried about the fishery to flat-earthers and schizophrenics; though mining has a poor environmental track record, he insists that Pebble Mine will be different. Fearing for the salmon of Bristol Bay is “like worrying an asteroid is going to hit Earth,” he adds. “It has no basis in reality.”
He’s so confident in this view that he agreed to debate the issue with Kraft, who for years has been one of the most vocal critics of Pebble Mine and a foil to Collier. The two men, at my request, will tour the mine site together, then spend a day fishing, to hash out their opposing views—and that’s what we’re headed to do right now.
The helicopter zips over the flat, water-logged landscape. There are no mountains within view, none of the snowcapped peaks that Alaska typically calls to mind—only a dense carpet of sedge and dwarf shrubs, wildflowers and moss. With winter coming, the landscape rolls on in shades of gold and copper, hinting at the treasure buried below.
THE CHOPPER SWINGS south and makes a detour to Frying Pan Lake. We touch down near the shore, not far from where Kraft is waiting in his Cessna 206 floatplane. A former professional hockey player, Kraft is wide-shouldered and fit at 52, with a face scarred from a near-fatal bush-plane crash. By his own account, he “threw the first punch” in the fight against Pebble Mine, having worked to rally commercial fishermen, environmentalists, native villages, and sportsmen against the project since 2005. For years, you couldn’t visit a fly shop in the Lower 48 without finding an anti–Pebble Mine sticker, largely thanks to his efforts.
Kraft wades over to the chopper, and introductions are short, with a scramble of handshakes between him and Collier, then between him and the pilot, Pebble’s PR man, a photographer, and me. I half expect some kind of standoff between Kraft and Collier, but instead, their meeting resembles a tense business deal: the two sides civil but guarded, neither wanting to give any ground.
Once Kraft changes into cowboy boots and loads up, we’re airborne again, swinging over the lake, and a mere 90 seconds later we land at what the Pebble folks call the Overlook, a 1,700-foot-tall hill and the highest spot on the known deposit.
We climb out of the chopper onto an expanse so vast that all sense of scale is lost: open, slow-rolling country in every direction, broken only by thumbprints of standing water, seeps, and streams that look like pale cursive script against the amber and crimson grasses. The Pebble Partnership owns 414 square miles of mining claims in the region—all of it on Alaska state land—and we’re standing right where its enormous pit might soon be.
Each year, the site is expected to produce 318 million pounds of copper, 23,000 pounds of gold, and 100,000 pounds of silver. “We’re coming in and dealing with the easiest deposit to get,” Collier says, motioning toward our feet and the earth beneath. “We can mine this by moving very little material, with a very small footprint.”
As we talk, Collier and Kraft are polite, maybe a little awkward. But later, in follow-up interviews, when they address opposing arguments, one word will come up over and over: Bullshit. Not salmon. Not gold. Bullshit. Bullshit! BULLSHIT!
It’s not terribly surprising that Kraft, as a fishing guide and longtime Bristol Bay resident, has ended up in the middle of this argument. Collier, on the other hand, took a highly unlikely route to his role as head of the Pebble Partnership and to finding himself here this September morning, having this debate.
Born in Mississippi, he went to high school in Memphis, then, for undergrad, to the University of Virginia, where he served as student body president. On his left hand, he still wears a silver ring, emblazoned with a black Z, for the Z Society—“a silly college club,” he says, but it’s UVA’s oldest secret society; several top government officials are rumored to have been members.
For law school, he attended the University of Mississippi. He originally hoped to become a civil-rights attorney, but after graduation, he instead clerked for a federal judge, then joined the white-shoe firm Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C. It was there, while working on a case for Motorola in Arizona, that he befriended Bruce Babbitt, the state’s Democratic governor. And when Clinton appointed Babbitt as interior secretary, in 1993, Collier agreed to come aboard as his number two.
Environmentalists generally remember Clinton’s Interior Department favorably, and Collier played a key role at the agency, brokering deals on pollution in the Everglades and on protecting the threatened northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. Babbitt called the shots, while Collier was the “trains-run-on-time guy,” making sure policy was implemented. “It was a fascinating time and an exciting time,” Collier recalls.
Jim Baca, a director of the Bureau of Land Management under Babbitt, remembers Collier as attentive, focused, hardworking—the consummate Washington professional. Nonetheless, Baca says, Collier always stood apart, as more dealmaker than true believer. “The general feeling was he wasn’t on the same agenda as the other appointees on environmental protection,” Baca says. (When asked about the mine, Baca says, “It’s a crime against humanity.”)
During his tenure at Interior, Collier worked closely with Babbitt and also with Vice President Al Gore. Somewhat unexpectedly, Collier credits these two environmental stalwarts—Babbitt has publicly opposed the mine—for teaching him lessons that he has used to usher forward the Pebble project. For one, “the notion that you need to choose environmental protection or resource development is false,” Collier says. “They can coexist.” A balance can be struck with good science, he says.
I ask Collier about the fact that many of his former Interior colleagues—particularly Babbitt, with whom he remains friends—have come out against the Pebble Mine. “The Bruce Babbitt I know was almost always right,” Collier says, “but when he was wrong, he was really wrong.” (Neither Babbitt nor Gore responded to interview requests.)
When Collier left the Interior Department, in 1995, he returned to Steptoe, where he worked with cell-phone companies when worries emerged that the devices could cause brain cancer; he also aided Kellogg’s when public pressure urged the company to reduce the amount of sugar in kids’ cereal. The biggest departure from his Interior days came in the early aughts, when he began working with British Columbia–based Northern Dynasty Minerals—the Pebble Partnership’s parent company—as outside counsel. Some years later, when he was asked to find a new chief executive for the firm, he recommended himself. According to one of his professional biographies, he specializes in “bringing adversaries together to resolve their differences,” which is exactly what the job called for.
But shortly after Collier assumed the role, in 2014, the Pebble Mine conflict—already a decade old—seemed just about resolved. Upon completing a three-year, twice-peer-reviewed study of the project, the Environmental Protection Agency, under the Obama administration, proposed restrictions on the mine’s Clean Water Act permit, citing concerns about water pollution and harm to salmon habitat. The move effectively put the kibosh on the mine. Then came the 2016 election, and suddenly everything changed.
Opponents of the project now worry that the Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting the draft environmental-impact statement due in January, is rushing to green light the Pebble project and thus take a critical first step in turning the headwaters of Bristol Bay into an expansive development district, echoing how the Prudhoe Bay oil field opened Alaska’s North Slope to oil extraction. Standing toe-to-toe at the mine site, Kraft tells Collier as much. He’s concerned that the expansive infrastructure of roads and ports that the mine requires will make it easier and more cost-effective for future projects to break new ground.
But Collier isn’t having it. “Today, we’re permitting this,” he says, motioning at the ground beneath our feet. “We don’t have any plans to do anything else.” In 20 years, if someone “wants to do this,” he adds, waving his hands. “they have to start over in permitting,” and the permit won’t be approved if the environment can’t handle the burden.
He doesn’t mention, however, that Pebble’s 20-year plan would leave almost 90 percent of the deposit’s $300 billion total worth of gold, copper, and other valuable minerals sitting in the ground—basically begging to be dug up once the project gets underway. Dennis McLerran, President Obama’s Region 10 EPA administrator who oversaw the 2014 report on mining in Bristol Bay, says it’s typically much easier for a project to have an additional phase permitted once it is already up and running. What Collier is doing, McLerran says, “is playing the permit game.”
“The general feeling was Collier wasn’t on the same agenda as the other appointees on environmental protection.”
AT THE OVERLOOK, the fog gives way to rain, and, with our hoods pulled tight, we separate to snap some photos. It’s hard to imagine anything industrial in this wild country, yet it’s also no Brooks Falls, famous for its brown bears catching leaping salmon. Collier claims that there’s been a lot of “picture propaganda” concerning the mine, with environmental groups using emotion to trump science. For starters, he says, by his math, if the mine is built and the worst-case scenario occurs—say, an earthquake or human error causes a dam holding back mining waste to fail—only a couple of thousand fish would die.
Kraft finds this laughable. As we survey the site, he points toward Frying Pan Lake, about a mile to the south. “Prime salmon habitat,” he says. Then he motions west, to Upper Talarik Creek and beyond to the drainage of the South Fork of the Koktuli River. More prime salmon habitat, every bit of it. “It all connects,” Kraft says. “It’s all intertwined.” Bears, caribou, eagles, moose, wolves, and subarctic vegetation would all suffer from a mining disaster here.
He brings up the Mount Polley Mine accident in British Columbia, where a dam failure in 2014 sent some 6.6 billion gallons of mine waste and water rushing into nearby Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, resulting in short-term increased levels of arsenic and copper in the water system. Mines in Brazil, Chile, China, Mexico, and Peru, as well as in the U.S., have experienced similar disasters; biologists speculate that one here would be impossible to contain—and could jeopardize not only the countless creeks and tributaries that tie in to the water table but also the 12,000 commercial fishing and processing jobs that Bristol Bay supports.
To Collier, this is just more bullshit. If disaster strikes, he says, only 30 miles of river would be affected. Besides, “this is the fourth year since Mount Polley,” he says. “They’ve had one of the biggest salmon runs in history right up the river to Mount Polley.”
Kraft isn’t put at ease. Every time there’s a mining disaster, executives promise “Well, we’re going to learn from that,” he says, but dams that hold back toxic mining waste keep failing. He’s also concerned that the mine will require a gas-fired power plant large enough to power some 200,000 homes; it will connect to a 188-mile natural-gas pipeline and an 83-mile transportation corridor by land and lake—none of which he thinks bodes well for fish.
The Pebble site is also exceedingly wet. Water will need to be pumped from the pit, treated, discharged into holding ponds, and then funneled back into the Koktuli River. “You can’t take tons of water out of three creeks, move it around, treat it, and not fundamentally change the chemistry,” Sarah O’Neal, an independent salmon ecologist, tells me. “It will drastically affect fish, and the little critters they eat.”
“Bullshit,” Collier says, once more, later in response. He claims that the water-treatment process is so good that the company will have to “dirty it up” to match the river; besides, the discharges will be governed by Alaska’s state water-quality standards.
Again, Kraft doesn’t buy it. He’s doubtful whether state water standards are strict enough to protect salmon, and he’s skeptical of the permitting process in the first place—especially when a project like the Donlin Gold Mine, about 150 miles northwest of Pebble, is being allowed to destroy salmon-bearing streams. “That’s standard operating procedure,” he says.
Standing above this mineral-rich wetland, shivering in the wind, Kraft and Collier soon launch into a nitty-gritty disagreement about what the EPA in 2014 deemed an appropriate-size footprint for the mine. Collier wants to know the reason the agency can’t definitively tell him why a 5.5-square-mile mine footprint is not acceptable but a 4.5-square-mile one is. “That’s what science is!” he says, fired up: To know why one is acceptable and one isn’t.
“I would prefer zero square miles, personally,” Kraft says.
The conversation illustrates a central difficulty with the Pebble Mine debate: Both sides are so dug in, so determined, that they can’t agree on even the most basic facts. All science is suspect, all narrators unreliable. Collier and his cohort allege, for starters, that the Obama administration was biased with its 2014 EPA study (a federal inspector general has found to the contrary), and the anti-mine contingency now makes similar claims about the Trump administration. Discussions between the factions tend to break down quickly, as this one does between Kraft and Collier.
The EPA’s guidelines, Collier tells Kraft, were “pulled out of thin air,” and its environmental standards “don’t exist anywhere in the world.” Kraft hits back: “Bristol Bay doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world!”
“The world has many pristine places,” Collier says.
Dark clouds soon roll toward us, and the rain turns relentless. The chopper pilot tells us that we need to go, and no one argues with him. Out here, the weather is the only absolute.
“You can’t take tons of water out of three creeks, move it around, treat it, and not fundamentally change the chemistry.”
A LARGE PART of Collier’s pitch to Alaskans relies on downplaying the inherent risks of building the mine and emphasizing the economic benefits for native villages, including Iliamna (population: 109), just outside the deposit, on the northeast edge of the Bristol Bay watershed.
More than a decade ago, when Pebble began exploratory work at the deposit, most of Bristol Bay’s tribal groups came out against the mine, or refused to take a side. But village leader Lisa Reimers and her family decided to work with the company. “We saw it coming and wanted a seat at the table,” Reimers tells me when I visit the village later that day. “There’s no such thing as a 100 percent traditional lifestyle anymore. We had to find a way to survive out here so our village doesn’t die.”
The village experienced a few boom years, but work slowed to a halt in 2014, when the future of the mine became uncertain. Iliamna, like many rural Alaska communities, is hamstrung by poverty, rampant substance abuse, domestic violence, gambling—problems villagers hope mine money will solve. After all, the project could bring 2,000 construction jobs over five years—with as many as possible filled by locals, Collier has pledged—and it could sustain as many as 1,000 six-figure incomes locally for 20 years or more—and Iliamna, for one, has no other industry to speak of.
Later, standing by Iliamna Lake—a vast sockeye nursery that drains into Bristol Bay—Reimers seems annoyed when I ask about what if the Pebble guys are wrong, what if the mine harms the salmon or the lake? Salmon are essential to her people she says, but “salmon don’t pay the bills here. Mines can, and they don’t risk the salmon.”
If Iliamna suggests that the mine can save indigenous villages, Igiugig, on the other side of Iliamna Lake, highlights a different route. The village has found prosperity through rugged, environmentally savvy self-sufficiency. “If you want a job in Igiugig, we’ll find you a job,” Christina Salmon, a tribal leader, tells me when I visit the next day. The village runs a construction company and generates power through wind and water turbines. It has a fully staffed tribal office, a maintenance crew, social services programs, and a library with two full-time librarians. Locals ship in supplies and fuel for fishing lodges and rent rooms and boats to DIY fishermen.
“We’re not anti-mining,” Salmon explains. She waves her diamond ring as proof. “I’m anti-irresponsible mining. This isn’t hard-rock mining; it’s mining swamps and tundra.” Iliamna had mining work 10 years ago, she says. Look where it got them. She contends that, without a strong community infrastructure, windfall money like what Pebble could bring will only exacerbate their struggles. “I’m not saying rural villages don’t need something,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be Pebble.”
AFTER TOURING THE MINE site, I stay the night in Iliamna, at one of Pebble’s camps, with Collier. We eat bite-size Hershey bars, talk politics, and heat up a frozen lasagna for dinner. Though fiery when pushed, he’s charming, crackling smart, well-read (he just finished Anna Karenina), and hard to dislike, even if you disagree with his agenda.
Christina Salmon’s sister, AlexAnna, opposes the mine but sits on a Pebble Partnership advisory board. “Tom is a good man; his law firm has done good work,” she tells me. But he’s dead wrong, she says, about the potential effects of the mine—not just on the fishery but also on water quality, on ancestral hunting and foraging grounds, on a rural subsistence way of life.
As we eat, Collier clarifies his quip about people with concerns over the mine being akin to flat-earthers. He’s sympathetic to their feelings, he says, but feelings aren’t facts. “We’re getting our permit,” he says flatly, “and inevitably we’ll be sued.” No matter the federal district-court ruling, the case will be appealed to the Ninth Circuit, “the greenest court of appeals in the country,” he says, “and we’ll win.” The decision won’t be based on salmon or water or preserving a native Alaskan way of life, he adds, but on the thoroughness of the permit process—a game he’s spent a lifetime playing.
Why not let the people of Alaska decide the mine’s fate with a simple up-or-down vote and avoid the hassle? He waves off the idea, then gets animated when I persist. “This isn’t a popularity contest!” he hollers. “That’s not how America works!”
TOM COLLIER LOOKS anxious again. We’re at Brian Kraft’s lodge, on the Kvichak River, suiting up for a day of fly-fishing. When I ask whether he’s OK, he ignores the question. Or maybe he doesn’t hear me. Kraft joins us, and we pile into a drift boat and set off, for more debate and to catch some fish. A couple of miles downstream, the river opens to a series of braids—stretching, expanding, and changing the way only wild rivers do. Schools of red torpedoes rise in the water: Sockeye salmon, returning to the streams of their births to spawn and die. Nitrogen from their bodies is in the grass, the shrubs, the trees. When their eggs hatch in the spring, the cycle will begin anew.
As we float, Collier and Kraft settle into fishing. Everyone’s blood pressure drops a few points, aided by the river and the morning sun. This stretch of the Kvichak River, fed by Iliamna Lake and connected to the Pebble Mine site, is renowned for its 30-inch rainbow trout, fat from trailing the dying sockeye and feeding on their eggs. Earlier, Collier told me about how much he likes to fish. Watching his cast, I smile. Back at the dock, Kraft had to help him put on waders. But he’s starting to get it now, with some help from Kraft.
Collier soon hooks a sockeye—a hook-jawed zombie—and Kraft nets it at the boat; a rainbow trout soon follows. As we drift, the pair finds common ground talking about their significant others—a girlfriend and a wife, respectively. “They keep you young,” Collier says.
Spoiling the tranquility, I ask Collier if anything could stop the mine. “We have almost $1 billion in it,” he says. So, no. “The value is too great.” Perhaps the only thing that could halt development, he says, is a drop in copper prices. “They could discover a new deposit in Africa or someplace hungry for the work.”
He claims that the opposition to Pebble Mine is largely a case of NIMBYism—Not in My Backyard. He knows that lodge owners, like Kraft, stand to lose the most if a mine goes in; after all, they’re selling fishing trips—but more so a chance to experience unexploited, untampered wilderness. Which is why, Collier says, they’ve fiercely opposed the project; he reduces their advocacy to naked self-interest. But, to be sure, Collier also has a financial stake riding on the mine’s outcome: A $12.5 million bonus awaits him if he can get the mine’s Clean Water Act permit within four years of filing. Yet money seems to drive neither man.
Kraft has a real affection for Alaska; it’s where he’s lived for 34 years—going to school, starting a business, raising a family. Collier, meanwhile, has an attorney’s zeal for winning. During our time together, he says again and again that he wants to prove that mining and the environment can coexist. That seems to be his chief motivation: to prove the point. If he’s successful, and correct that the mine won’t wreck the fishery, he’ll go down in the history books with a huge W next to his name. “If he gets that line in the history books,” Kraft says, “the next line will read, Brian Kraft failed.”
The day ends abruptly. After lunch, one of Kraft’s guides ferries Collier upriver to Igiugig for a flight back to the paved world. The plan was for Collier to stay through dinner, but Kraft suggested that he leave early. “In all honesty, until 2 p.m. was about all I could take,” Kraft says. “I have employees who are passionate about this effort. It’s hard for me to have him here.”
Neither Kraft nor Collier, during their time together, got any closer to a compromise or to conceding each other’s point. In fact, the encounter may have widened the divide. Collier mentioned that he wanted to return to the lodge with his girlfriend. “I wouldn’t accept that booking,” Kraft tells me. One of his employees suggests that instead of shaking Collier’s hand at their first meeting, he should have punched him in the nose.
A few days after our fishing trip, I call Collier. Unless the mine is built, it’ll remain unclear whether he or Kraft is right about whether it’ll threaten the Bristol Bay fishery. What’s certain, though, is that scores of similar projects have proved disastrous for fish and wildlife—in continental Europe and the British Isles; in Appalachia and out west; in the Columbia, Sacramento, and Fraser watersheds. When I ask Collier one more time about the ecological harm mines have had on these areas and others, he attributes the damages, in the Pacific Northwest anyway, not to mines but to damming, dredging, and timber harvest.
The Pebble Mine, Collier insists, will be different. The question is whether we—and the federal government—should believe him.
This story appears in the January 2019 print issue, with the headline “Gold Digger.”