Congress: EPA IG’s Office Totally Botched The Pebble Mine Investigation

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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The Environmental Protection Agency inspector general’s office completely botched an investigation into the agency’s decision to kill a mining project before it could even apply for permits — that’s according to two newly-released reports.

“Unfortunately, the EPA OIG’s report suffers from a number of significant deficiencies, including the fact that the EPA OIG chose to review and analyze emails and communications from only three EPA officials rather than reviewing the entire established record,” Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith sent in a letter to the IG’s office Monday with the two recent studies attached.

“The EPA OIG’s lack of investigative rigor displayed by this report has led many, including this Committee, to question the report’s completeness and its conclusions,” Smith wrote.

In January, the EPA IG’s office released its report on whether or not the agency misused its authority by preemptively trying to veto an Alaska mining project before it had even applied for any permitting or submitted any plans. The EPA used a hypothetical mine as justification to stop the Pebble Mine from being built near Bristol Bay.

The IG 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.”

The IG, however, did report a “possible misuse of position” with regards to former EPA employee Phil North using his private email account to help Alaskan tribes opposed to the Pebble Mine draft a letter urging the government to take unprecedented measures to kill the project.

North later fled the country when federal marshals came to serve him with a subpoena to appear before Congress. North was recently located by investigators and will be deposed in a lawsuit against the government’s handling of the project.

North has been the target of investigators for years for his alleged involvement in fueling opposition to the Pebble Mine. House investigators reported last year that 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.

The IG’s findings contradicted a report put out by a firm run by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. That report found EPA had not only planned on killing the mine from the beginning, but it also colluded with anti-mining activists to do so.

“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 last year.

Now Cohen has a second report out, deriding the IG’s findings the EPA did nothing wrong in killing the Pebble Mine. Cohen argued “the IG Report left many questions open, and the record remains incomplete in material aspects.”

“I believe it remains important for the relevant Congressional committees with oversight responsibilities to continue their work,” Cohen wrote in his report released by Smith’s staff Monday. “How EPA has conducted the process to assess the potential development of this important resource, and protect the environment in this critical area of Alaska, is of vital importance to the region, state, and the country.”

Smith also released a report by the law firm Steptoe and Johnson criticizing the IG’s Pebble report. Lawyers with S&J represent the mine’s developers in a lawsuit against the EPA.

S&J argued the IG’s report “was so narrow as to materially distort the reality of the agency’s actions” adding “that the ‘possible misuse of position’ cited by the OIG with respect to an EPA employee in Alaska underestimates the seriousness of the agency’s misconduct, and limits accountability for this misconduct to a single individual despite evidence that senior EPA staff at both Region 10 and headquarters in Washington DC were aware of and complicit in inappropriate activities”

With two reports contradicting the IG’s report, Smith has asked the government investigators to meet with the House science committee — which he chairs.

“Given the conflicting conclusions reached by the EPA OIG report and Secretary Cohen’s report, the Committee requests a briefing by the EPA OIG staff who produced the report in order to better understand the scope and parameters that were determined in the course of their analysis of this matter,” Smith wrote.

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