- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2014

Paging Phillip North. Please call Capitol Hill.

The former official at the Environmental Protection Agency was central to the controversy swirling around an Alaskan mining project that includes accusations of federal overreach. Now representatives on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform want to question him.

There’s just one problem: No one can seem to find Mr. North, who, after retiring, might have left the U.S. Nor do his legal representatives seem inclined to disclose his location, according to committee officials.

“The entire situation is highly unusual,” said Caitlin Carroll, a committee spokeswoman.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, California Republican, has twice called upon Mr. North to testify before Congress. Now lawmakers are considering serving him with a subpoena to make him appear.

But in order to do that, Congress has to have an exact address so they can send the subpoena. The most recent information suggests Mr. North may be with his family on a trip through the Western U.S. and then will board a boat to traverse the world’s oceans.

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“As you know, Mr. North is in the midst of a long-planned yearlong family activity in which he and his wife have taken their children out of school,” said one of Mr. North’s lawyers, Billie Garde, in an April email responding to the second summons to Congress.

“Their children are young, ages eight and five,” continued Ms. Garde in an email exchange with committee staff. “He is unwilling and — as a practical matter — unable to leave them alone while on this trip to come back to attend your transcribed interview.”

One EPA staffer told the panel an email from Mr. North indicated he planned to travel the Western U.S., then go to Australia or New Zealand to buy a boat with which to sail around the world.

The Washington Times first reported in April on the controversy surrounding the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Critics have said that building the precious metals mine would not only severely damage the local ecosystem but would also devastate the local fishing trade, which is considered to be one of the largest in the entire Pacific Ocean and supports thousands of jobs.

But questions have been raised on whether the EPA worked to undermine the project before it even got off the ground. Internal emails showed officials were pressuring for a veto under the Clean Water Act that would stop the project based on concerns over water quality in the area — a step several EPA officials said hadn’t been done before and was of questionable legality. Mr. North’s emails during the dispute have surfaced in the probe.

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“On the other hand, we do have a Supreme Court willing to change history,” Mr. North wrote in a 2010 missive to colleagues and obtained by the House committee.

The documents show the EPA was debating how to stop the project even before a mandatory scientific review was completed to evaluate the potential environmental impact of the mine.

“Phil North appears to have played a key role in the EPA’s decision to pursue [a veto],” Ms. Carroll said.

In lieu of Mr. North’s testimony, Capitol Hill staff tried to get a record of his emails and documents related to the Pebble Mine project. But they didn’t have much luck there either.

“EPA officials told the committee they were unable to provide a number of relevant documents because Mr. North’s computer crashed in 2010 and his files were not backed up on an EPA server,” Ms. Carroll said. “Because critical documents are missing, only Mr. North can answer many of the committee’s remaining questions, however, he has gone to great lengths to avoid cooperating with the committee.”

Agency officials told congressional investigators they did eventually find two hard drives that may contain some of Mr. North’s documents, but Capitol Hill staffers said they are still concerned they’re not getting the whole picture.

In the past year, committee staff said they have twice tried to schedule a time to talk with Mr. North but both times have been told the former EPA official cannot attend.

“Mr. North does not know if the date you proposed would be feasible; but, given all the other factors that we have previously discussed regarding this matter, he has decided to respectfully decline the committee’s invitation for a voluntary transcribed interview,” Ms. Garde said in an email to the investigators.

Neither the EPA nor Clifford & Garde, the law firm representing Mr. North, returned calls seeking comment.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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