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Pebble seeks ex-EPA scientist it says colluded with anti-mine groups

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 17, 2015

The company hoping to develop the Pebble mining prospect near Bristol Bay wants a federal court to issue a subpoena for a former scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency who Pebble says fled the country to avoid answering allegations that he worked with mining opponents against the development.

The effort to bring Phil North back to the U.S. is part of Pebble Limited Partnership's lawsuit that alleges the EPA colluded with anti-mine activists as it developed a watershed assessment saying a large open-pit mine could severely damage one of the world's largest commercial salmon fisheries.

Pebble Limited, part of Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, claims the EPA violated federal law as it took steps toward preemptively stopping the controversial Pebble project, which would be one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world.

Pebble argues that North, a lead scientist in the agency's review, collaborated with mine opponents, including six tribes from the region, conservation groups and other federal scientists, to prepare reports used by the EPA in its analysis.

North is believed to be living in Australia after he fled the U.S. in October 2013 while facing the threat of a congressional subpoena, Pebble argued in a motion filed in Anchorage federal district court on Monday. North needs to be in the U.S. to provide testimony and produce documents, Pebble argues.

The EPA is not taking a position on Pebble's request for the subpoena, according to Pebble's motion.

A Department of Justice lawyer representing the EPA in the case, Robin Thurston, would not comment for this story. Neither would a spokeswoman for the EPA, Marianne Holsman.

Efforts to reach North for this article were unsuccessful. In July 2013, North, of Kenai, was preparing to sail around the world with his family for two years after retiring from the EPA, according to an article in The Redoubt Reporter.

Last year, Judge H. Russell Holland issued an injunction halting the EPA from taking action that could stop the mine, which the EPA says is allowed under a "sparingly" used section of the Clean Water Act known as 404(c) that allows the agency to "protect valuable areas from harmful discharges."

In June, Holland allowed Pebble Limited's case to move forward, denying EPA's motion to dismiss it.

Pebble Limited claims that North's absence from the U.S. has made it difficult to collect important information in the case.

The motion claims the EPA has been a "poor substitute source of information," in part because many of North's emails have apparently gone missing.

"Indeed, within the past week, EPA has conceded that North used his personal email account to conduct EPA business and did not forward those emails to his government email account," the motion argues.

"EPA has confirmed that there are missing North documents resulting from a hard drive that 'crashed.' And more recently, EPA identified multiple previously overlooked folders on an encrypted thumb drive used by North," the motion claims.

EPA has been unable to determine if the folders have relevant documents, perhaps because only North knows the password, Pebble claims.

Emails that have been retrieved show North worked closely with Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy, the motion complains.

"For example, he emailed Tim Troll and Marcus Geist of The Nature Conservancy, stating, 'I am wondering if any or all of you are available that morning to discuss wetland conservation around . . . Bristol Bay . . . and how we might be able to support each other or collaborate with our work."

North worked as an ecologist in the EPA's Northwest region for the Aquatic unit's Office of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs, the motion says.

" ... in that role, he was able routinely to attend antimine meetings and pass information and strategies along to other EPA personnel and activist groups through phone calls and emails. He took the lead in connecting anti-mine groups with EPA officials at in-person meetings, and he had extensive communications with the various players."

He also "secretly collaborated, through personal email, with Jeff Parker, counsel to six Native Alaskan tribes and Trout Unlimited, to draft and submit the tribes' petition." The petition was supposedly the catalyst that led the agency to proceed with its watershed assessment, which was publicly released in early 2014, the motion claims.

Parker said the matter is in litigation, so he could not comment.

"It is not appropriate for me to discuss it. It will be sorted out by the courts," he said.

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