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Environment

EPA's retired scientist comes back to the U.S. to testify about Pebble

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 30, 2016

The mysterious scientist who Pebble Limited Partnership says was at the center of the government's effort to block its mega-mine traveled from Indonesia to Washington, D.C., to testify Wednesday about his role in the project.

And just as Phillip North finished up six hours of deposition testimony and was leaving the offices of Pebble's lawyers, he was handed a congressional subpoena by two young men who snapped his picture.

North worked as a Soldotna-based ecologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Pebble contends he came up with the scheme for EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to block the mine even before developers sought a major permit to dredge and fill wetlands and salmon streams. The mine developer is suing EPA to undo its work on Pebble.

It contends EPA — with North leading the way — improperly worked with environmentalists to form hidden, backroom advisory committees in violation of federal law. Just as North was facing "potential legal repercussions," he shut down his personal email account and fled the country to avoid a threatened congressional subpoena, Pebble asserted in a court filing last year.

"All of which is untrue," says Billie Garde, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents North and often represents whistleblowers.

North retired from EPA in 2013 after more than 20 years with the agency in Alaska, specializing in oversight of mines. When he retired, he planned to sail with his family around the world for at least a couple of years, according to a July 2013 story in The Redoubt Reporter.

Pebble last year secured a court order to force North to turn over records and return to the United States to testify. Pebble issued its subpoena to North in January, when he was living in Australia with his wife and children. The family has since moved to Indonesia. Pebble covered $2,400 in travel costs under the order.

Those present for the deposition on Wednesday were told, after the lunch break, that North's testimony from the Washington, D.C., office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP was being live-streamed to Pebble offices in Anchorage, Garde said.

Pebble declined to discuss North's testimony.

"I can confirm that the North deposition is taking place this week," said Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole. "Beyond that we have no comment."

The Pebble gold and copper prospect contains what are believed to be the biggest undeveloped deposits in the world. But the mine project also would disrupt salmon streams that contribute to Bristol Bay's world class sockeye runs and would put fish drainages at risk long into the future with the storage of mine waste.

The separate, congressional subpoena demands that North appear with records before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Garde said that North was served in the lobby of the building occupied by Pebble's law firm as he was walking out the door.

"The committee has been doing Pebble's bidding since the beginning of this dispute and apparently they are not satisfied with letting the legal process work its way through the facts," Garde said.

Efforts to reach the committee chairman, Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, for an after-hours response on the East Coast Wednesday were unsuccessful.

A committee aide said Congress members have been trying to talk to North for years but, unlike the lawyers in the lawsuit, couldn't serve him with a subpoena in Australia. When North showed up at the offices of Pebble's lawyers, that was the first chance the committee had to approach him directly, and he is at the heart of EPA's work on Pebble, the aide said in an email. "He's never talked to Congress despite efforts."

North is directed to appear before the committee at the Rayburn House Office Building at 10 a.m. April 14. Under the subpoena, he also must bring with him all documents and communications from his personal email account related to the Pebble project, the section of the Clean Water Act at issue, and communications with Geoffrey Parker, an Alaska attorney who represented Bristol Bay tribes that originally petitioned EPA to act.

An EPA inspector general report that examined the agency's study of Pebble found North used his personal email for government business, the congressional aide said, explaining why the committee sought those records.

North's lawyer was still evaluating whether to challenge the congressional subpoena.

North was due back before the lawyers Thursday to continue his deposition for Pebble. EPA lawyers also are present.

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