Phil North was no fan of the proposed Pebble Mine, so when he was asked in 2010 to offer feedback on a draft petition urging the Environmental Protection Agency to kill the project, he pitched in with suggested language and edits.
Given that Mr. North was then a staff scientist with the EPA working on the Pebble Mine, however, his collaboration with outside advocates, which he discussed in a deposition released Thursday, has only confirmed the worst suspicions of House Republicans.
They quizzed EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran on the extent of the staff’s collusion with advocacy groups at a Thursday hearing on the agency’s decision to snuff the proposed Alaska mine even before the Pebble Limited Partnership had applied for a permit.
“If we look at what happened here, and just take it down to the bare bones, your agency stacked the deck behind the scenes,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, Arkansas Republican. “They orchestrated a predetermined action or predetermined outcome. Mr. McLerran, just to be honest, your agency appears to be more of a taxpayer-funded advocacy group than an impartial federal agency.”
Mr. McLerran insisted the agency was dedicated to “open and transparent” decision-making, but he was confronted throughout the hearing by Mr. North’s deposition, taken April 15 after the retired staffer returned to the U.S. after being subpoenaed by the committee.
In the deposition, Mr. North admitted that he advocated within the agency on behalf of employing a rarely used provision of the Clean Water Act to squelch the Pebble Mine preemptively.
He also said he provided edits and advice on the petition to Alaska attorney Geoffrey Parker, who represented tribes opposed to the Pebble Mine, adding that he felt he had a “duty” as a federal employee to assist outside groups.
“When someone comes to me and they want help petitioning the government, it’s my duty to give them feedback and help them on that,” Mr. North said in the deposition.
Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said that the panel “may never know the true extent to which Mr. North and EPA employees worked with outside groups to establish a process to stop the Pebble Mine,” given that some email conversations conducted by staff on personal accounts were destroyed.
“But we know enough to conclude EPA employees violated ethical standards by giving outside groups unprecedented access to internal EPA deliberations, allowing for close collaboration on agency actions and strategy,” said Mr. Smith.
Mr. McLerran repeatedly deflected questions from Republicans on Mr. North’s comments, saying that he had not read the 249-page deposition.
At the same time, he said he had not and would not conduct his own investigation into issues raised by the deposition, saying he had already acted to address issues raised by the Office of Inspector General’s examination of the Pebble Mine process.
“We concurred with the findings of the Inspector General that there could have been a misuse of position and we have followed through with the appropriate training of our employees,” Mr. McLerran said.
Mr. Smith responded, “That’s astounding to me that an administrator would not want to find out if their employees misused their positions as suggested by the IG as a possibility. I’m just amazed that there isn’t more accountability.”
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the panel’s ranking Democrat, cited the Inspector General’s report released in January, which she said “found no evidence of bias or predetermined outcome. That is about a clear a statement of fact as the IG can make.”
Pebble Limited Partnership has sued the EPA over its decision on the project, a proposed copper, molybdenum and gold mine located within the Bristol Bay watershed that developers say could be worth up to $300 billion in its lifetime. Foes have cited concerns over its impact on local salmon fisheries and wetlands.
Rep. Randy Neugebauer, Texas Republican, compared the EPA’s work behind the scenes with opponents to a judge giving “pointers” to an attorney before a trial.
“I think the point is that we have people inside EPA that were going to have an influence on the process coaching outside groups on trying to determine the outcome before the process even began,” said Mr. Neugebauer.
Mr. North fueled speculation that he was fleeing scrutiny after he retired in 2013 and then left the country on a multiyear around-the-world trip with his family. He returned to Indonesia after giving his deposition, said his attorney Billie Garde.
“To characterize it as fleeing the country to avoid this congressional witch hunt is completely untrue,” Ms. Garde told The Washington Times.
She relayed a statement from Mr. North after the Thursday hearing in which he said Mr. Smith and committee members “clearly do not understand the process of agency decision-making” and that EPA staff acted lawfully.
“Staff must make preliminary decisions based on the information that they collect,” said the North statement. “Then managers can decide whether to proceed with the regulatory process. “