Go, Phil, Go

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A worker near the Pebble Mine, in Alaska ’s Bristol Bay region, which is at the center of a long-running legal battle between a Canadian developer, native tribes, commercial fishermen, and environmentalists. PHOTOGRAPH BY AL GRILLO / AP

Thanks to Tim Sohn for bringing Phil North to our attention:

The E.P.A. Ecologist Who Became a Wanted Man

BY

When Phil North retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, after a mostly quiet twenty-three-year career in Alaska, his plan was to embark on an around-the-world sailing trip with his wife and two young children. But when it came time to weigh anchor, there was a problem: the aging boat that North had docked in South Carolina proved unsalvageable. A hunt for another suitable vessel in his price range yielded nothing. After a series of discussions and a vote, the family decided, in early 2014, to fly to New Zealand. “We were only going to go for three months, but we loved it and ended up buying a camper van and driving around for ten months,” North, who is fifty-nine, told me recently. “And then our visa ran out, and we thought, We’re so close to Australia, we can’t not go.” So they went, and toured the country for another year.

As it turned out, North had good reason to stay away. While he was living out his retirement dreams abroad, something odd was happening back home. He was becoming perhaps the most infamous retired Alaskan bureaucrat anywhere—a rogue scientist on the lam, the subject of lawsuits, subpoenas, and congressional inquiries and hearings. At issue was North’s work on the Pebble Mine, an immense gold-and-copper prospect in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. For more than a decade, a fractious debate had pitted the Pebble Limited Partnership, the Canadian developer, against a coalition of indigenous tribes, commercial fishermen, and conservationists, who objected to locating an open-pit mine near the headwaters of one of the world’s largest salmon runs. At the time, North was an ecologist in the E.P.A.’s Aquatic Resources Program, working alone out of an office in the Kenai Peninsula town of Soldotna, where he dealt with enforcement, outreach, and education pertaining to the Clean Water Act. He was content, good at his job, and uninterested in politicking his way up the E.P.A. ladder. He prided himself on having a good reputation—“green but fair”—with the networks of regulators, consultants, and N.G.O.s that surround Alaska’s extraction industry, on both the business and conservation sides.

North was assigned to work with Pebble in 2005, when the project’s advanced exploration phase got under way, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the E.P.A. took a more active role, announcing the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, a multi-year, peer-reviewed study of the mine’s potential impacts. The study’s results led the E.P.A. to conclude that a mine such as Pebble would pose too great an environmental risk to the region. In 2014, it sought to curb its development by invoking Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which, though rarely used, gives the E.P.A. the power to restrict projects that would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on surrounding waters and ecosystems. North, who had been his division’s point man on the assessment, necessarily played a role—though not, as E.P.A. officials have pointed out, in any sort of decision-making capacity.

Pebble’s objections were vociferous from the start, and in 2014 it filed three lawsuits against the E.P.A. One was dismissed as premature, since the agency hadn’t yet rendered its final decision. The second, which is ongoing, alleges that the E.P.A. failed to satisfactorily fulfill Pebble’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The third suit, also ongoing, is the most significant. It alleges that North and the E.P.A. assembled a team of anti-mine activists to help guide their assessment, in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. North was aware of the charges against him (he’d set up a Google Alert for his own name), but, on the advice of his attorney, he remained silent while abroad. In January of this year, Pebble finally found him—it won’t say how—house-sitting in western Australia, and served him with a subpoena. In late March, North flew to Washington, D.C., to be deposed by Pebble’s attorneys. Afterward, he told me that he had been eager to set the record straight. “Throughout this, what they’ve done is they’ve taken a few facts and then they’ve filled in all the rest of the stuff they don’t know and created a story around it,” he said. “But their story is wrong.”

The story that Pebble has been telling, through lobbying and legal filings, is that the E.P.A.’s use of 404(c) amounted to a preëmptive veto of its project, based on a compromised study that denied the company due process before it had even turned in plans or permit applications. Pebble’s motion to subpoena North, filed last August, alleged that, starting in 2009, North began “recruiting and coördinating an entourage of scientists, lawyers, lobbyists, environmental groups, and Tribes,” later “secretly collaborating” with them to push through his own agenda, even going so far as to help a lawyer for six of the tribes draft a petition to the agency. (This petition, Pebble’s attorneys write, was the “purported catalyst” for the watershed study.) To read the documents, North sounds like a mastermind. His documentary record from those years is incomplete; files are missing from his government computer, and he occasionally conducted E.P.A business through his personal e-mail account. His apparent flight to parts unknown didn’t help. “His absence made creating that story possible,” Billie Garde, North’s attorney and a specialist in whistle-blower cases, told me. Pebble’s account, with its tree-hugging antihero, proved irresistible to the right-leaning press and to congressional Republicans, many of whom were already inclined to see the E.P.A. as the archetype of overreaching federal authority. Soon, they launched three separate inquiries…

Read the whole post here.

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