Freedom Tower BASE Jumpers Cleared on Burglary Charge

The jury in the trial of the three men who BASE jumped off the new World Trade Center tower in lower Manhattan returned a verdict yesterday: not guilty on the top count of burglary, guilty on the lesser counts of reckless endangerment and violating the city's BASE jumping prohibition. 

BASE Jumpers Markovich, Rossig, and Brady (L to R). (Photo: Steven Hirsch / NY Post)

BASE Jumpers Markovich, Rossig, and Brady (L to R). (Photo: Steven Hirsch / NY Post)

The three defendants, Marko Markovich, Andrew Rossig, and James Brady, jumped off the tower in September 2013 and were arrested in March 2014. From the time of their arrest, the jumpers' attorneys had argued that the felony burglary count was an over-charge, an overzealous response by the DA's office to a security lapse that was an embarrassment to the city, the Port Authority, and the NYPD.

"This verdict is the same as the plea we would have taken a year ago," lead defense attorney Timothy Parlatore told the Daily News, criticizing the resources that were wasted on the investigation and trial. "The main issue in the case was the district attonrey's office taking a misdemeanor and trying to turn it into a felony.... They probably wasted half a million dollars on this case."

During the two-week trial, the defense had argued that the burglary charge did not apply, while the prosecution contended that it was appropriate and warranted in this case. Manhattan DA Cy Vance issued a statement focusing on the conviction for the lesser charges rather than the dismissal of the top charge.

“In the nearly two years since this BASE jump occurred, the three men who parachuted off One World Trade Center have yet to acknowledge the dangerousness or cost of their actions,” said District Attorney Vance in a statement. “The defendants took pride in their perceived accomplishment, and seemed to relish evasion of authorities. Today, a jury found their stunt to be reckless and illegal.”

The jury, which began deliberations last Wednesday afternoon, seemed at a deadlock when they submitted a note to Judge Juan Merchan earlier Monday, according to the Daily News, but came to a decision later in the day.

Sentencing will be on July 10th.

(For more background on the case, see my feature at Outside here.)

Large Things Evoked by Small: RIP James Salter

Though he was 90, it still seems too soon for us to be without James Salter's voice. A giant, a master, and a man I count myself fortunate to have met, interviewed, and lunched with. "We are all poor in the end," Salter wrote in his 1997 memoir, Burning the Days. "The lines have been spoken. The stage is empty and bare. Before that, however, is the performance." And what a performance: New Yorker, West Pointer, fighter pilot, skier, climber, raconteur, and one of the finest prose stylists you'll ever read.

After years of admiring Salter and reading him obsessively, an assignment for Outside in 2011 finally gave me the excuse I'd been looking for to meet him. I set up an overly elaborate lunch at Eleven Madison Park, and we talked and ate and drank a glass of wine each while I tried to keep myself together. All the while, in my head, all I could think was, "I'm having lunch with James Salter. I'm having lunch with James Salter. I'm having lunch with James Salter. Don't fuck this up!"

I must not have fucked it up too badly, because we remained in touch afterwards, as he completed his final novel, All That Is, which I reviewed for GQ when it was published in 2013. The novel's epigraph reads, "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real." And it was in some ways a valedictory. From my review:

Over the course of three hundred pages, All That Is progresses through the rooms of a well-furnished life, tracing Phillip Bowman's adulthood from his time as a young man in the Navy up through his career as a book editor in New York. He is no adventurer, but he is solitary and ambitious, a priest to publishing, though by no means celibate. ... In addition to sex and the relations between men and women, the book contains many of Salter's other long-time themes: action, honor, loyalty, and friendship; the devotion to a life well-lived, and the gulf between our imagined lives and our actual existences; and the recognition that the sublime and the sad, the highs and lows of life, are hopelessly intertwined. What's changed most from his earlier work is the vantage point.

There is a moment early in the book when an aging man—Bowman's wife's grandfather—confronts his flailing son and takes stock of his own life. "He could hardly construct how he had gotten from there to here," Salter writes, and that, as much as anything, is the explanation of this book: reconstructing the "there to here," plotting the waypoints of a life—war, college, sex, love, marriage, divorce, death, heartbreak, joy, illness, betrayal, redemption—and drawing the reader along for the ride. This is the view from the summit of life's hill rather than midway up its flanks. It is a story told by someone looking backwards with the benefit of a lifetime of accumulated knowledge.

The last time I spoke with him was late last year, while reworking our lunchtime interview for inclusion in the forthcoming book Conversations with James Salter, set for release this fall. He was delivering some lectures at UVA at the time, and sent back a subtly edited draft of our interviews--cutting out, in his words, tk--interspersed with some Faulkner quotes. I remember at the time thinking back to this passage from Burning the Days, all the more appropriate now:

"Somewhere the ancient clerks, amid stacks of faint interest to them, are sorting literary reputations. The work goes on endlessly and without haste. There are names passed over and names revered, names of heroes and of those long thought to be, names of every sort and level of importance."

He was speaking then of a friend, but I think it applies here. He was a hero of the highest order, and his name, his reputation, and his work will continue to be revered.

Jury's Out in Freedom Tower BASE Jumpers Case

Since the two-week trial of the World Trade Center BASE jumpers concluded early Wednesday afternoon, the jury has been deliberating. Defendants James Brady, 33, Andrew Rossig, 34, and Marko Markovich, 28, can only wait while the jury debates the four charges against them, including one felony burglary count and three misdemeanor counts, two for reckless endangerment and one for violating the actual BASE jumping statute.

Closing arguments last Wednesday saw both the defense and the prosecution attempting to hammer home their own narratives surrounding the jumps, which took place in September 2013 and were recorded by the jumpers on helmet-mounted GoPro cameras. To the defense, the charges were overzealous; to the prosecutor, they were warranted.

The defense team hit on the same points it had since the arraignment: yes, these are the guys who BASE jumped off the tower, but they are highly skilled experts who endangered nobody but themselves and are being overcharged because they embarrassed the Port Authority and the NYPD by exposing security lapses at the site. Timothy Parlatore, the lead defense attorney, representing Andrew Rossig, went first.

“In this case, most of the facts are not in dispute: these are the men who climbed to the top of the Freedom Tower and jumped off,” Parlatore said. “On your shoulders today rests the all important decision of whether to permanently label these defendants as criminals.”

Much of his argument centered on the most serious charge, for felony third degree burglary. The core of the defense argument hinges on the wording of the burglary statute, which applies to breaking into a building with intent to commit a crime “therein.” They argued that because the crime was committed outside—they jumped from the communication rings atop the tower’s roof—the burglary charge does not apply but that, because “they did what they did in a manner that embarrassed city and state government officials,” they are being made an example of.

“What I told you on the very first day of this trial remains the same,” Parlatore said. “Was the jump committed safely? And where did they jump from? Was it inside, or outside?”

The trial itself had been contentious, and featured a couple surprises. Defendant Markovich took the stand in his own defense, but the biggest surprise was the testimony of Kyle Hartwell, who was initially charged with the three jumpers for serving as an accomplice, driver, and lookout. Shortly before the trial started, he took a plea deal to avoid a felony conviction and jail time. It was the same sort of deal that the defense had sought for the jumpers, admitting the crime but avoiding the life-altering implications of a felony conviction.

(Hartwell’s testimony probably won’t change much in the jury’s mind, but it did clarify a couple points I’d gotten wrong in my earlier article. The jumpers had told me that they had carried their gear in with them on the night of the jump, and that Markovich’s pilot chute had gotten caught on something and damaged while climbing the stairs. In fact, Brady had stashed their parachutes and other gear on site the day before, and the pilot chute had been gnawed to shreds by rats by the time the three men retrieved it the next day.)

Attorney Joseph Carozzo, representing Marko Markovich, made clear that he felt Hartwell had been coerced into cooperation. “He had to cooperate,” Carozzo said in his closing. “That’s what he had to do to be treated fairly. Nobody’s mad at Kyle Hartwell.”

Carozzo, like the others, spent a good deal of time arguing against the idea that there was any substantial risk in this jump to anyone but the jumpers themselves. They are experts, he said, professionals whose “only objective in this jump was to jump off successfully and land successful. There were no tricks in this jump,” he said, before trying to underscore how little danger there was to anyone on the ground. “This is a great New York story, that three people jump off the Freedom Tower and there’s only one 911 call.”

Assistant District Attorney Joseph Giovannetti disagreed, of course, sticking close to what his office has argued all along: that these three men are selfish thrill-seekers who knowingly disregarded public safety and flouted the law for their own kicks. In their view, the communication rings on the roof are part of the building, and therefore the burglary charge is appropriate.

“You heard them crowing and bragging about what they did [on the podcast], giving a blow by blow account of their crimes,” argued Giovannetti. These men, he said, are criminals. “Don’t let the defense confuse you about this,” he continued. “What the defense is trying to do is confuse you by mixing up the words indoors and inside.” Giovannetti went through a series of analogies ranging from the jury box to a boxing ring to Central Park to Derek Jeter standing in the batter’s box to try to show that to be “inside” doesn’t necessarily require a roof overhead.

Giovannetti did not mince words, and he accused the defense of twisting the law, coaching witnesses, and mispresenting the potential jail time faced by their clients. One of the most entertaining moments came when he quoted back from an occasionally profane podcast of the defendants describing their jump, which surely involved more F-bombs than he was comfortable with.

“Don’t let the defendants pull the wool over your eyes or talk you into not being able to see the forest for the trees,” he concluded. “The defendants put their enjoyment above the law.”

It’s now in the hands of the jury. “This is the hardest part,” Parlatore told me after the jury was sent off on Wednesday. “They could come back in five minutes, they could come back in a week. All we can do is wait.”

Trial Begins for Freedom Tower BASE Jumpers

The trial of the the three men who jumped off the new One World Trade Center tower in lower Manhattan in September 2013 began Monday. The opening statements stuck closely to the rationales and strategies outlined in my Outside feature covering the crime itself and the pre-trial hearings: the prosecution argued that these men are habitual criminals who disregarded the law and endangered the public with their selfish behavior; the defense argued that they are highly skilled technicians who planned the jump precisely, put nobody in danger, and are the victims of an overzealous prosecutorial attempt to save face.

"This case is about their decision to put their egos above the law and above the safety of New Yorkers," said ADA Joseph Giovannetti, as reported by the New York Times. He went on to highlight the charge at the core of the case:  third degree burglary, a felony which could carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison and which the prosecution feels is merited because the men went into the building with the intent to commit a crime. The defense team will argue that, because they jumped from a communications ring on the roof, they were not "inside" of anything.

The most interesting development as the men head to trial is a report from the Daily News that their alleged lookout, Kyle Hartwell, who remained on the ground and did not jump, will testify against them. There's no additional info yet on what sort of a deal he was offered for his cooperation, but when when I filed my article in April, he was still part of the case, charged with the same crimes as the jumpers themselves.

More updates to come later in the week.

Carl Boenish and the Origins of BASE Jumping

This weekend sees the debut of Sunshine Superman, a documentary about BASE jumping pioneer Carl Boenish. It's a film that's become much more poignant, and perhaps much more important, in the wake of last weekend's BASE jumping accident that claimed the lives of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. I spoke with the film's director, Marah Strauch, for a Q&A for Outside.

It was in Yosemite in the late 1970s that Boenish started what was then known as fixed object parachuting or cliff jumping. An electrical engineer turned aerialist, Boenish left his job behind to pursue skydiving and aerial cinematography full-time. “But,” as he says in an archival interview in the film, “after 1,500 skydives over 15 years, you become so proficient at it that you wonder, ‘Well, what else is out there.’” 

Boenish became the ringleader of a band of likeminded jumpers, including his wife, Jean Boenish, who graduated from the cliffs of Yosemite to other objects and locations. He had an offbeat charisma that sometimes verged on manic, but he was also highly organized and practical. He worked tirelessly to legitimize BASE jumping as a legal sport and cataloged its development obsessively, mounting 16mm film cameras to his and his partners’ helmets.

His death, during a jumping accident in Norway in 1984, the day after he and Jean set the Guinness record for world’s highest cliff jump, came as a jolt to a sport still in its infancy. And though decades have passed, Boenish's death—and the film—provokes the same conversations we’re having now after this week’s tragedy. (Boenish was 43 when he died—the same age as Potter.)

The film itself, which took eight years to complete, is a tremendous feat of research, storytelling, and imagination It splices together Boenish’s personal footage with atmospheric recreations of scenes for which no footage existed, and includes interviews—sometimes funny, sometimes confounding, often emotional—with his co-conspirators from those early days. 

(Click through to Outside to read my conversation with director Marah Strauch.)

The Other Man: Remembering Graham Hunt (1986-2015)

An accident during a wingsuit BASE jump in Yosemite on Saturday claimed the lives of jumpers Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. While Potter was a legend in the outdoors world, Hunt was relatively unknown, and in the wake of the tragedy, most of the chatter centered on Potter, rendering Hunt little more than a footnote. To shed a little more light on Hunt's life, I did some reporting, spoke with his friends, and came up with this remembrance, published on Outside's site today. Click through for the full article.

Since the news began to filter out that two men had died in a wingsuit-flying accident in Yosemite on Saturday, thousands of words have been written about one of them, Dean Potter, 43, and far fewer about the other, Graham Hunt, 29. 

Which makes sense: Potter was a towering figure in the outdoor sports world, a renowned-climber-turned innovator, and a proselytizer for a range of high-altitude pursuits, among them highlining, free-BASEing, and, of course, BASE jumping and wingsuit flying. So when word came that Potter had died, the tributes poured out, many of them nearly ready-made, because, while tragic, Potter’s passing was not entirely unexpected. 

Hunt, on the other hand, was mostly unknown outside of the close-knit fraternity of BASE jumpers and climbers in the Yosemite orbit. What’s more, his complete disinterest in self-promotion and nearly non-existent digital footprint rendered him un-Googleable, which has meant that most of the coverage in the immediate wake of his death barely registered who he was, other than that he happened to be flying with Potter when something went terribly wrong. The basic narrative was, “Dean died, and this other guy was with him.” 

But among those who knew him and had climbed, jumped, and lived with him, Hunt had a reputation for soulful, unshakeable competence and confidence, for being reliably reliable when situations got tricky in the mountains, as they often do for this tribe. He’d progressed rapidly in his early twenties from the climbing gyms of Sacramento to the walls of Yosemite, with 5.12 first ascents to his credit. He was someone people turned to frequently when they needed a solid partner for exploits in the Valley. In recent years, he’d gravitated more towards jumping and wingsuit flying, and though he’d only been at it for five years, he’d gone full tilt, evolving from apprentice to being among the sport’s best. “Whatever he focused on, he became really good at, and he was probably one of the top wingsuit flyers in the world,” says Shawn Reeder, a photographer and climber who met Hunt shortly after he arrived in Yosemite as a 22-year-old. “He got really into jumping, and Graham and Dean became really good friends through jumping. He was Dean’s partner, his compadre.” 

Or, as a Facebook post from slackliner and BASE jumper Andy Lewis put it: “Graham Hunt was a G who rolled silent like lasagna. He was known only by those who needed to know.” 

(Read the rest at Outside online .)

Talking BASE Jumping on Sirius Radio with Jay Thomas

I spent part of yesterday afternoon as a guest on the Jay Thomas Show on Sirius, discussing my latest article for Outside about the men who BASE jumped off NYC's Freedom Tower. Also on the show was the jumpers' lead attorney, Timothy Parlatore, so forgive the "two Tim's" confusion.

Here's a recording of the full segment:

And if you haven't had a chance to read the piece yet, it's posted on Outside's site here.

On BASE Jumping off the Freedom Tower, and its Consequences

For over a year now, I've been tracking the story of the three men who BASE jumped off of the nearly completed Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan in September 2013. Since their arrest in March 2014, I've met with them and their lawyers repeatedly as their case has wound its way through New York's criminal justice system. Now, with their trial set to begin in May, Outside has published my feature on the men, their jump, and their legal woes, all supplemented by some fantastic illustrations by Erin Wilson.

Click through to Outside to read the full piece and see the rest of the illustrations. Or if you don't feel like reading, check out the videos from the jump here.

Still Searching for Michael Rockefeller

I've got a new piece over at Outside today that goes back to an old subject of mine: Michael Rockefeller's disappearance in Dutch New Guinea in 1961. You'd think ever angle of the story has been covered by now, but a new documentary, "The Search for Michael Rockefeller", now on Netflix, has unearthed some previously unseen footage and interviews from the 1960s. It doesn't change what we know about the story, but it's still fascinating. I talked with the film's director, Fraser Heston.

Read the rest of the piece at Outside.

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New on NewYorker.com: The Bat Man of Mexico

It sounds like the setup for a bad joke: a Mexican bat biologist and a British filmmaker walk into the Explorers Club... In fact, it was the premise of my first piece for the New Yorker's website.

The piece involves me tagging along while renowned Mexican bat biologist Rodrigo Medellin, and British Director Tom Mustill attend the US premiere of their BBC2 film The Bat Man of Mexico, at the Explorer's Club on Manhattan's Upper East Side as part of the New York Wild Film Festival. The event also featured a tequila tasting, which probably had something to do with this photo:

Amy Cooper, Rodrigo Medellin, and Tom Mustill. (Photo by Nancy Rosenthal.)

Amy Cooper, Rodrigo Medellin, and Tom Mustill. (Photo by Nancy Rosenthal.)

Read the full article here.

Reality TV Comes to Bristol Bay

Tonight, a "reality" show about fishing in Bristol Bay premieres on Animal Planet. For the past few years, lots of fishermen, myself included, have fielded calls from producers trying to make a show like this. Most of us had little interest, reasoning that the end product would bear little resemblance to reality and could only misrepresent Bristol Bay and do harm to its reputation as the producer of the world's best wild salmon.

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And while I haven't seen the show, it seems, judging from the few clips posted online, that we were more right than we knew.

"Battle on the Bay" seems to combine all the worst elements of the Reality TV genre into a sensationalistic mash up that does not represent what the Bay is about. The teaser clips are full of ginned up drama, people performing for the camera, and line-fishing blowhards who care more about shouting at each other than catching fish.

Perhaps the show will prove my initial, hasty reaction wrong, but click through to see the clips and see what you think.

Monadnocking for the New Year

Anxious for some perspective on the new year, I sought out higher ground with a scramble over frozen trails to the top of Mount Monadnock (3,165 feet), the highest point in southern New Hampshire. The mountain has an impressive geological prominence, rising more than 2,100 feet from the surrounding valley floor, as well as a cultural prominence out of all proportion to its relatively modest elevation. The first trail to its summit was set in 1706, and the mountain has since proven a persistent beacon to generations of writers, artists, geologists, and philosophers, and was a particularly popular playground for the Transcendentalists.

So, taking my lead from Ralph Waldo Emerson's long poem Monadnoc, composed, according to legend, atop the mountain on a May morning in 1845, I broke my sloth and marched: 

Up! where the airy citadel
O'erlooks the purging landscape's swell!
Let not unto the stones the Day
Her lily and rose, her sea and land display.
Read the celestial sign!
Lo! the South answers to the north;
Bookworm break this sloth urbane;
A greater spirit bids thee forth,
Than the gray dreams which thee detain.

I escaped gray dreams into a gray day, cold and cloudy with intermittent flurries. But the lack of visibility troubled me little, as I was taking Henry David Thoreau's advice, as recorded in his journal during his climb in August 1860:

They who simply climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it.

This was not my first climb up Monadnock, but then Thoreau climbed it four times, so I suspected there would be a benefit to returning. And there was: clarity, as Emerson also found:

Man in these crags a fastness find
To fight pollution of the mind;
In the wide thaw and ooze of wrong,
Adhere like this foundation strong,
The insanity of towns to stem
With simpleness for stratagem.

Happy New Year.

President Obama Protects Bristol Bay from Oil and Gas Drilling

Up now at Outside online and sitting front and center on the home page (see below) is my analysis of President Obama's announcement earlier this week that Alaska's North Aleutian Basin, including Bristol Bay, would be off limits to future oil and gas exploration and drilling. It's a huge win for those who have been fighting to protect the Bay from the threat sandwich of offshore drilling and inland mining, but the threat of the Pebble Mine still looms. Click through for the full story.

(Those are the fine folks of Iliamna Fish Co. hauling in some Bristol Bay Sockeye. Photo by Corey Arnold.)

Judge Orders EPA to Halt All Work on Pebble Mine

In a ruling issued Thursday in Anchorage, a federal judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to cease all work pertaining to its investigation of whether to block development of Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine. The order, dated December 4, was in the form of a Case Status update that clarified the terms of a preliminary injunction issued by the same judge, H. Russel Holland, Senior Judge for the US District Court in Alaska, on November 24.  

The preliminary injunction pertained to a lawsuit filed by the Pebble Limited Partnership against the EPA, alleging that the EPA had used an anti-mine team of experts during its study of the Bristol Bay watershed, thereby prejudicing the process towards what the mining company has called a “pre-emptive veto” of the as yet undeveloped mine. The EPA had begun a multi-step process whereby, under powers granted it by Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, it may prohibit dredge and fill activities that would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on fishery areas. The injunction ruled in Pebble’s favor, seeing enough merit in the lawsuit to ask EPA to pause its process; it also requested amendments and clarifications to Pebble’s complaint.

Following the injunction, there was some disagreement over whether the EPA could continue work on the 404(c) process while Pebble revised its complaint and EPA prepared a response. The Pebble Partnership believed all work should cease, while the EPA maintained that they could continue internal work on the process.

Judge Holland sided with Pebble: “Defendants may not,” he wrote, “engage in any activities related to the 404(c) process.” In addition, the order lays out a timetable for moving forward: Pebble will submit an amended complaint by December 19; EPA will file its motion to dismiss by January 23, 2015; Pebble will respond by February 17, followed by another EPA response by March 6, and a hearing to follow.

In a statement, the EPA reiterated that the injunction was only preliminary and that the court had not yet made a ruling. “EPA is complying with the preliminary injunction as set forth in the court's Dec. 4 update,” the statement says. “We are pleased the court set a swift schedule to move forward. We are confident in our case and look forward to a prompt resolution.”

The injunction is the latest chapter in the now decade-long fight over development of the controversial mine. The Pebble deposit, a low-grade copper and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, sits amid spawning grounds that feed the legendary Bristol Bay salmon run. It has been the target of a years-long effort by a consortium of Native groups, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, conservation groups, and other Bristol Bay stakeholders to halt its development.

The EPA’s involvement in Bristol Bay dates back to 2010, when a number of Bristol Bay Native groups and other stakeholders petitioned the agency to take action under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the perceived threat of the proposed Pebble Mine. The Agency undertook a three-year study of Bristol Bay, eventually releasing its peer-reviewed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment in January of this year. In February, it issued notice of its intent to propose protections for Bristol Bay, and in July, it issued the proposal and initiated a public comment period that ended in September. The next phase of the process would be to either recommend moving forward with protection for Bristol Bay or withdrawing the proposal.

The EPA’s “veto” power under Section 404(c) has been infrequently invoked: the process has been initiated only 30 times in the 42 years of the Clean Water Act’s existence, with only 13 of those processes leading to final determinations to block a permit. In the case of Pebble and Bristol Bay, the agency argued, their study showed that such action was merited.

In response, Pebble soon filed three lawsuits. The preliminary injunction remains silent on two of them but saw enough merit in one to call a halt. In a statement issued last week after the preliminary injunction was announced, Pebble CEO Tom Collier called it an important “procedural victory.”

“This means that for the first time EPA’s march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted,” he said in the statement. “Last,” Collier’s statement concluded, “one criterion that must be met as a prerequisite for a Preliminary Injunction is that we have a ‘likelihood of success on the merits.’ EPA argued strongly that we could not meet that test. The court disagreed and granted the Preliminary Injunction.”

The EPA noted when the preliminary injunction was announced that it is just that—preliminary—and does not represent a decision. “EPA is waiting to see the court’s written order on the preliminary injunction,” the Agency said in a statement at the time. “EPA hopes the litigation is resolved expeditiously so the agency can move forward with its regulatory decision-making.”

And while the injunction represents a rare win for Pebble, the mine’s future prospects remain murky. Beyond the open question of how these suits are eventually decided, the Pebble Partnership currently has no backer after multinational mining company Anglo American pulled out of the project in 2013, followed by Rio Tinto’s divestment of its 19% stake in April of this year, leaving Northern Dynasty, the junior partner, as sole owner. Northern Dynasty has neither the money nor the capacity to develop the mine itself. Adding to the problems, in a statewide referendum on the November ballot, 65% of Alaskan voters approved the so-called Bristol Bay Forever Initiative, which gives the state legislature veto power over Pebble, taking it out of the hands of the state and federal agencies, including the EPA, that usually handle mining permits.

(A version of this story also appears on The Huffington Post.)

Feds Crack Down on AK Mining Co in Clean Water Act Indictment

I had an advance tip on an interesting indictment coming out of Alaska, where a Platinum mining company trying to re-process the detritis of decades-worth of mining near remote Goodnews Bay had been polluting the Salmon River with compolete disregard for the environmental impacts or the requirements of its mining permits. From my HuffPo piece:

In a first for extraction-friendly Alaska, the Department of Justice last week announced an indictment against mining company XS Platinum, Inc. (XSP), and five of its officers and employees. The XSP executives stand accused of five felony counts centered on a conspiracy to knowingly dump mine waste into Southwest Alaska's Salmon River, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Further, according to the indictment, they deliberately misled regulators and submitted false statements to hide the pollution that they knew was occurring. The indictment is also noteworthy because XSP marketed itself as a "sustainable" mine that would get its platinum from mining waste rather than fresh excavation, and, as such, signed a contract with Tiffany & Co, which has positioned itself as a leader in responsible mining by signing on to a "No Dirty Gold" campaign directed at another Alaska mine.

"This is the first criminal indictment of a mining company for federal Clean Water Act charges in Alaska," said Kevin Feldis, First Assistant United States Attorney for Alaska. "This is part of our ongoing commitment to aggressively enforcing environmental law in Alaska."

The 28-page indictment centers on alleged criminal activity that occurred primarily in 2010 and 2011 on public lands around remote Goodnews Bay, where XSP's Platinum Creek Mine operated from 2008 to 2012. It's the culmination of a cooperative investigation involving a number of federal and state agencies and led by the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division and the BLM's Office of Law Enforcement and Security. They began building the case in 2011, shortly after XSP was initially cited for violations by the Alaska Department of Environmental Control.

The indictment names the company's top three officers, Chairman and CEO Bruce Butcher, 59, and Director and Executive VP Mark Balfour, 62, both Australian, and both Australian corporate attorneys; and James Slade, 57, a Canadian mining executive who served as Chief Operating Officer. In addition, Robert Pate, 62, an American geologist who was the mine's general manager and James Staeheli, 43, an American and a manager at the mine, were also indicted. All five of the men were charged with violating the permit and conspiring to cover up the violations, and all but Staeheli also face the charge of submitting a false statement.

XSP's holdings consisted of nearly 200 mining claims spread across more than 4,000 acres, mostly clustered around the Salmon River just upstream from where it flows through the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and empties into the Pacific in Kuskowim Bay. The Salmon, like other rivers in the area, is an essential spawning habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon. The vast majority of the mining claims are on land managed by the BLM, while a small number of undeveloped claims lie within the Togiak Refuge.

XSP's plan was to reprocess the scrapheaps left over from the Goodnews Bay Mining Company's platinum mine (1937-1979) and extract residual platinum from the 45 million tons of tailings--mine waste--left behind over the decades it had been in operation. The company said it would do this all on a "zero-discharge" basis, filtering and reusing the massive amounts of wastewater created by the reprocessing, and thereby protecting the surrounding natural resources.

Click over to the Huffington Post to read the rest of my piece.

Pebble vs. EPA gets the Fox News Treatement

It's no secret that politicians on the right aren't particularly fond of the EPA, viewing it as an overreaching, industry-hobbling agent of Big Government, and it's proven a particularly attractive bogeyman for right-leaning media outlets.

So it should come as no surprise that they found cause for celebration in the recent temporary injunction stopping EPA's work to block the controversial Pebble Mine. Fox News latched onto the ongoing investigation over lost EPA emails in addition to the injunction, and capped it all off with a quote from Rep. Don Young (R-AK) who was predictably anti-federal and proprietary. "Allowing a federal agency to have this control over private land is a taking," Rep. Young said, even though Pebble sits on public land owned by the state. "And they can argue all they want about this, [but] this is really a taking." Full clip: 

It should be noted that many of Pebble's opponents would dispute the "thousands of good-paying jobs for many decades" that the Fox correspondent mentions, among other details.

The Daily Caller got in on the action with a piece full of loaded language.

The small legal victory, combined with a federal investigation, could present huge problems for the EPA, which is preventing Pebble from getting a key federal permit needed to operate. PLP can now obtain documents through discovery and depose individuals in their pursuit to show that the EPA’s veto of the Pebble Mine was biased. ... But that’s not all. As Pebble supporters celebrate their legal win, investigators with the EPA inspector general’s office are continuing their probe into the agency’s decision on the Pebble Mine to discover if the process was rigged and influenced by environmental activists.

This should be interesting to watch in the new year, when the new Congress is seated and we can expect a renewed round of attacks on the EPA's authority, as well as further developments in Pebble's various lawsuits.