Government investigators looking into the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rejection of the Pebble Mine project found 25 months of missing emails from the account of an employee who allegedly played a major role in derailing a crucial Alaska mine project.
The EPA inspector general (IG) found that former EPA employee Phil North was using his private email account to help Alaskan tribes opposed to the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay draft a letter urging the government to take unprecedented measures to kill the project.
“This action was a possible misuse of position,” according to an IG report released Wednesday. “Agency employees must remain impartial in dealings with outside parties, particularly those that are considering petitioning or have petitioned the agency to take action on a matter.”
Investigators also noted, “Region 10 identified 25 months of missing emails for the retired employee that overlapped with the 52-month time period of our review” which hampered the IG’s ability to fully examine all of North’s government emails.
But that’s not all. Investigators were also unable to get a hold of North’s private email account which he used to coordinate with Pebble Mine opposition. The IG reported that “despite issuing a subpoena, we were unable to obtain additional personal emails for the retired employee.”
What’s most startling is that the IG’s subpoena failed to get North’s private emails because the former EPA ecologist fled the country shortly after congressional investigators issued a subpoena for him to be deposed in 2013. He was last spotted in Australia.
“We issued a subpoena to the former employee’s legal counsel, as we could not identify the former employee’s location,” the IG noted. “The former employee’s legal counsel refused service, stating that she was not authorized to accept service on behalf of her client.”
North has been the target of investigators for years for his alleged involvement in fueling opposition to the Pebble Mine. In a report last year, House investigators said North played an “integral role” in getting the EPA to use its power under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to veto a mining project before it’s even gone through the permitting process or put forward any actual plans for the mine.
Investigators obtained emails from 2010 showing North advised tribal leaders to ask the EPA to use Section 404 to preemptively strike down the Pebble Mine, which environmentalists said would harm salmon fishing in Bristol Bay, Ala. The EPA has never before used Section 404 to kill a project before any development plans have been put forward.
“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,” House investigators reported in November.
“Documents show North edited the tribes’ petition before it was sent to EPA in May 2010,” investigators wrote, adding the “final version of the letter from the tribes incorporated North’s edits.”
Likewise, the EPA IG’s report found North not only helped tribes craft their opposition letter, but he also didn’t forward that email to his government account for record preservation. the IG found “no evidence that the Region 10 employee forwarded the email in which he provided edits to his EPA work email account.”
Investigators, however, still said they found no evidence North broke the law, but added this might have been different “because we could not access all of the employee’s work emails and nearly all personal emails of the employee.”
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. But environmentalists and some tribes launched campaigns to derail the project.
The EPA released two assessments of Pebble’s impact on Bristol Bay’s water resources and wildlife, but the agency based its conclusion on “hypothetical” mines and not on actual plans by Pebble’s developers.
House Republicans and mining interests were concerned EPA’s actions could set a precedent where the agency could veto major projects before they ever get off the ground. The companies behind Pebble got independent consultants to evaluate how EPA handled Pebble’s veto.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who now runs his own consulting firm, released a report in October claiming 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,” Cohen reported.
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 (NRDC) 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 also the target of an investigation last year, looking into their cozy relationship with EPA officials. Federal lawmakers wanted to see how NRDC’s relationship with EPA affected agency decisions, including on the Pebble Mine.
The EPA IG, however, seems to have agreed with NRDC and found “no evidence of bias in how the EPA conducted guidelines and followed its assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed, or policies and procedures that the EPA predetermined the assessment when conducting the Bristol outcome.”
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