EDITORIAL: The EPA’s Houdini bureaucrat

Former official manages magic escapes from congressional investigators

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The ghost of master magician Harry Houdini lives at the Environmental Protection Agency, where agency officials routinely make common sense and tax money disappear without a trace. Now certain officials themselves are disappearing before our very eyes.

That’s what happened after evidence of collusion surfaced between officials of the EPA and environmental activists to thwart construction of a mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Emails and memos from Phillip North, a retired employee of the agency, show that the EPA determined it would do whatever it took to prevent the development of the Pebble Mine project.

Vast wealth lies just below the surface of the ground in a desolate region a hundred miles from the bay. A survey revealed a thousand tons of gold and 9.4 million tons of copper, along with other valuable metals, waiting to be extracted and refined into useful products, even jewelry. It’s a find that would boost U.S. copper production by 20 percent and reduce the need to import the metal from overseas.

The burst of activity would create 15,000 jobs in Alaska and the lower 48 states, and pour billions of dollars into the U.S. economy. Under federal law, the EPA must make a balanced assessment to weigh these substantial economic benefits against a scientific analysis of potential harm to rocks, shrubbery and insects.

The crucial Keystone XL pipeline delay shows that this White House has no interest in balance. A loyal acolyte of the left, Mr. North schemed with Indian and environmental groups to lay plans for spiking Pebble Mine long before scientific feasibility studies were conducted.

The agency invoked a special provision in the federal Clean Water Act to limit mining in the area before a specific proposal was submitted to the government. “It really takes an exceptional situation for [the provision] to be used,” Mr. North told an Alaskan community weekly, the Redoubt Reporter. “But when I started talking about it with people, almost everybody said, ‘If there’s anyplace this should be done, it’s Bristol Bay,’ because there’s no place on Earth like Bristol Bay.” Who needs hard science when you’ve got easy emotion?

The EPA shut down the project before a single hearing was held. When Congress heard what was happening and wanted to know the details of Mr. North’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering, he vanished, making sure he wouldn’t be around to answer tough questions about his tenure as a public official.

When President Obama promised the “most transparent administration in history,” trusting voters thought he meant he would make sure the public could see what was going on in Washington. What he delivered was an administration capable of making itself incorrigible and invisible.

“The greatest escape I ever made,” Houdini once said, “was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.” Mr. North pulled his Houdini act in Alaska, fleeing the subpoena of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Houdini would salute such magic.

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