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Court seeks missing EPA biologist at center of plan to stop Pebble Mine

Embattled federal employees conveniently losing emails that could bear witness to potentially negligent or illegal activities have become an increasingly frequent storyline. But seldom does the email's author disappear with the corrupted data.

This seems to be the case with Phillip North, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency biologist accused of secretly colluding with private sector activists to stop the development of a mine at the Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum project in Southwest Alaska.

Now, the Pebble Partnership has filed for a subpoena to bring North home to Alaska to fill in blanks left by several years of emails that are believed to contain details of his collaboration with anti-Pebble scientists, lawyers, and Native and environmental groups.

Documents that the Pebble Partnership has obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests provide compelling evidence that North was advocating for EPA to use its veto power under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to prevent the Pebble Partnership from applying for permits to develop its world-class copper-gold-molybdenum deposit in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska as early as 2008, which pre-dates the 2010 request by Alaska Native groups that EPA has claimed as its impetus to take such an action.

The scant emails made available to the Pebble Partnership also provide evidence that North was a key liaison between anti-Pebble activists and upper EPA officials in Washington D.C.; as well as recruiting the team utilized to build the Bristol Bay Assessment, and authoring sections of this report, which supports EPA's decision to severely restrict the development of the Pebble deposit.

"In short, North was instrumental in forming and utilizing the work of the de facto Federal Advisory Committees at issue in this case and in utilizing them to provide recommendations and advice for EPA to launch its unprecedented attack on Pebble Mine," the Pebble Partnership charges in its subpoena.

The subpoena comes in the discovery phase of a trial in which the Pebble Partnership asserts that behind-the-scenes collaboration between EPA and the anti-mine groups violates advisory committee law and taints the entire process for which the environmental agency is basing its Clean Water Act determination with regards to Pebble.

"Relying heavily on substantial input, advice, and recommendations from these unlawfully established advisory committees, EPA prepared a patently biased, anti-mine assessment of hypothetical mining activities in the Bristol Bay Watershed and then used that flawed assessment to commence administrative proceedings under the federal Clean Water Act that, if allowed to stand, will effectively put an end to mining before the permitting process ever gets off the ground," the Pebble Partnership summarizes in its complaint.

In addition to the agency emails that have surfaced as a result of FOIA requests, North is believed to have used private email accounts for much of the coordination and implementation of this plan and according to the EPA, the hard drive on his work computer failed, rendering the missing communications unobtainable.

The U.S. House Oversight Committee got the same response from EPA when it attempted to track down the missing emails in 2013. To fill in the information gap left by the computer crash and loss of emails, the federal watchdog committee sent a request for North to come to Washington D.C. to testify.

Instead of testifying before the oversight committee, North embarked on a "yearlong family activity in which he and his wife have taken their children out of school," North's lawyer, Billie Garde, informed the requesting lawmakers.

This yearlong vacation appears to have been extended.

"For almost two years, he has remained outside the U.S., communicating with U.S. government investigators only through his lawyer," lawyers for Pebble Partnership told the court.

Adding to the intrigue is an encrypted thumb drive created by North that EPA says it has yet to decode to determine what documents it may hold.

Judge H. Russel Holland, who is presiding over the case that Pebble has brought against EPA in U. S. District Court for the District of Alaska, said that given the inability to obtain the missing emails and unlock the encrypted data, North's testimony before the court is necessary and issued the requested subpoena.

"Indeed, the court would be surprised if the EPA were not as anxious as Pebble to obtain testimony and access to documents controlled by Mr. North," Holland said in his order.

"It appears to the court that Mr. North may be the only person within the EPA capable of shedding meaningful light upon whether or not unauthorized advisory committees were created or utilized in connection with preparation of the Bristol Bay water assessment," he added.

North is believed to be somewhere in Australia.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Publisher

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Over his more than 16 years of covering mining and mineral exploration, Shane has become renowned for his ability to report on the sector in a way that is technically sound enough to inform industry insiders while being easy to understand by a wider audience.


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