EPA Official Behind Pebble Mine Defeat Fled The Country Amid Congressional Probe

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A government ecologist was instrumental in the Environmental Protection Agency’s blocking of a major Alaska gold mine left the U.S. after congressional investigators found out he flouted federal records law.

A report published by Republicans on the House science committee found that Phil North, an EPA ecologist, came up with the plan to use the Clean Water Act to block the Pebble Mine from ever being built in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. North convinced the EPA to use an “unprecedented” method for shutting down the mining project, according to the report.

House science committee staff found out about North’s involvement in Pebble from a 2013 news article. The committee quickly sent a request to EPA “to request North’s relevant documents and communications.” The committee also wanted North to come in for a transcribed interview, but North was less than compliant.

“North evaded the Committee’s request for documents by using his personal email account to conduct agency business in direct contention with the Federal Records Act,” according to the science committee’s report, adding that North refused to be interviewed and that his attorney ignored a subpoena.

“North then left the country and avoided service by the U.S. Marshals Service of a subpoena to be deposed by the Committee,” the House committee wrote. “According to press reports, North was most recently in Australia.”

The House Republican’s report outlines how the EPA was determined to block to Pebble Mine before it could even submit any actual plans or begin the permitting process. North was instrumental coming up with EPA’s legal rationale for derailing the mine project: a preemptive veto under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

“Documents show North played an integral role in the preemptive veto process, both before EPA received the letter from the tribes requesting 404(c) action and in authoring the [Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment],” the report reads.

Republicans also shows how EPA employees, including North, convinced Alaskan tribes in the region to write a letter to the agency asking them to preemptively veto Pebble — something the EPA had never done before. The whole “grassroots” push against the mine was orchestrated by EPA and its allies, according to the report.

“North’s close relationship with the anti-Pebble Mine groups gave him intimate knowledge of the impending preemptive 404(c) letter from the tribes, allowing him to prepare briefing documents to send out to Region 10 managers once the petition was received,” Republicans reported.

“Documents show North edited the tribes’ petition before it was sent to EPA in May 2010,” the report found, adding that the “final version of the letter from the tribes incorporated North’s edits.”

Pebble Mine has been a hot political battle for years. The Pebble Limited Partnership has been trying to build a mine northeast of Bristol Bay for years because of the rich deposits of gold, copper and other precious metals. The tribes have been split on the issue, but the process became much more divisive once EPA and environmentalists got involved.

The agency released two assessments of the mine’s impact on Bristol Bay’s water resources and wildlife. The agency found the mine would harm the region, but based its conclusion on “hypothetical” mines and not on actual plans by Pebble’s developers.

Environmentalists launched a massive campaign to halt the mine, urging EPA to preemptively veto the mine. Former EPA chief Lisa Jackson hinted the agency was considering a preemptive veto at a 2011 environmentalist fundraiser. EPA used these assessments to block the mining project, setting off a wave of political push-back from mining proponents and lawmakers.

“The fact that a critical component of EPA’s posture toward the Pebble Mine project appears to have been developed based on a remark by the Administrator at a social event organized by mine opponents raises concerns that the outcome of the assessment was predetermined,” House Republicans wrote.

The Republican report comes after former defense secretary William Cohen, who now runs his own consulting firm, released a report in October alleging the EPA came to a predetermined conclusion about the mine and may have colluded with environmentalists to kill the project.

“The statements and actions of EPA personnel observed during this review raise serious concerns as to whether EPA orchestrated the process to reach a predetermined outcome; had inappropriately close relationships with anti-mine advocates,” according to Cohen’s report, which was done at the request of the Pebble Limited Partnership.

Environmentalists lambasted Cohen’s report, saying it “lacks independence, predictably supports Pebble’s perspective, and should be ignored.”

“It is the Cohen Report – not EPA’s process – that lacks transparency and reflects a predetermined result,” wrote Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of a report attempting to refute Cohen.

NRDC, however, was one of the most vocal opponents of Pebble Mine. The group even got actor Robert Redford to speak out against the project in a video campaign. NRDC was the target of a congressional investigation last year, looking into their cozy relationship with EPA officials. Lawmakers wanted to see how NRDC’s relationship with EPA affected agency decisions, including on the Pebble Mine.

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