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Environment

Hard-to-find retired EPA scientist tells where he's been and why he fought Pebble

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 4, 2016

A retired government scientist who has been described as elusive and secretive by those backing the proposed Pebble mine is now speaking up in force about why he so opposes the project and what he did to block it.

Pebble Limited Partnership considers Phil North the key agent in what it calls an improper, back-channel scheme of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restrict its proposed open-pit gold and copper mine at the headwaters of salmon-rich Bristol Bay.

The mine developer is suing EPA to erase years of study that the agency is using to prevent a giant mine in the watershed producing the world's biggest runs of sockeye salmon. North's role and life are under scrutiny, including his use of a personal email account and his exit from the United States.

North, a retired EPA ecologist and the agency's point person for Bristol Bay during the years at issue, says he did nothing wrong, was never in hiding and doesn't regret his work helping tribes with a petition urging EPA to veto the mine.

"Once the whole story is part of the dialogue, most of what they are saying goes away," North says of Pebble.

Last week North flew from Indonesia, his family's latest home base in a world adventure, to the U.S. under a court-ordered subpoena to testify in the lawsuit.

After almost 10 hours of sworn testimony over two days last week in the Washington, D.C., law office of a firm representing Pebble, North on Friday began talking to reporters about his role in EPA's efforts on Bristol Bay. News organizations agreed to hold off publishing the interviews until Monday.

Years ago as a young man, North worked on a Bristol Bay salmon tender for four or five summers, but he said he didn't realize the enormity of its salmon runs until he was assigned to work on Pebble in 2005.

"Bristol Bay was pretty much off my radar screen before Pebble came along," North, now 59, said in a telephone interview Friday with Alaska Dispatch News.

Mountain of waste

He began working for EPA in 1989 in Alaska and retired about 23 years later, in April 2013. Starting in 1998, he served as the lone EPA employee in Soldotna, where he was responsible for community outreach, grant oversight, enforcement and evaluations of landscape-changing projects in which earth is moved or wetlands filled.

Never had he seen anything like what was proposed in an area of unparalleled natural habitat that feeds into Bristol Bay.

The mine footprint, he said, would be enormous. The pit would be nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. The pit, tailings dams of processed ore, and waste rock piles would cover an area larger than Manhattan.

The Pebble deposit, north of Iliamna Lake, is in the watersheds of two major salmon rivers, the Nushagak and the Kvichak, which together support about a quarter of the world's wild sockeye salmon, according to EPA.

North said he attended multiple meetings, many organized by the mine developers, and sought information from a variety of sources, including a Canadian mining expert, to become better informed on the project. By 2007 or 2008, he said, he was convinced the mine shouldn't be allowed.

"Really, Bristol Bay should be a national park," North said. Groups have tried over the years to give it special protection but the efforts never worked "because of the politics," he said. "It's a world resource that deserves extraordinary protection. Imagine if there was a big copper deposit in Yosemite Valley or Yellowstone -- would we even think of going in and mining it?"

He worked for a time earlier in his career for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in northern California trying to determine how much water needed to be released from dams to help salmon make it through to spawn.

"My job there was to protect the last few thousand salmon that would be bumping their noses up on the dam," he said.

One time he was flying over the Pebble site and looked back, visualizing a massive amount of waste rock on what was pond-dotted tundra.

"There's going to be this squared-off mountain, the same height as these other mountains out there," North said, referring in particular to Koktuli Mountain, which rises 1,200 feet above surrounding terrain. "Just an immense amount of waste. And much of that if not all of that is acid generating. It's just a monumental feat to control all that."

Protections would need to be in place into perpetuity, the EPA says. Pebble is arguing for the chance to present a detailed mining plan to see if it can clear rigorous environmental reviews. North said he already knows the answer.

"Someone has to manage it for hundreds of thousands of years," North said. "I just have to say, 'C'mon. That is just simply not realistic.' There is no company that is going to go in and spend money for hundreds of thousands of years to manage this waste."

'Off the grid'

Pebble is suing EPA in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to nullify the work that led to its 2014 Bristol Bay watershed assessment and kill its proposal to sharply restrict mining in the region.

The proposal is rooted in an obscure part of the Clean Water Act, Section 404 (c), which EPA says has only been used 13 times nationwide and only twice to block a project even before developers have sought permission to build it. With a career spent evaluating mines under that law's lens, North said he began zeroing in on that little-known approach around 2007 or early 2008.

The law says EPA can act "whenever," North said. It's better for EPA to designate an area as unsuitable for fill ahead of any Corps of Engineers permit, so that a developer knows the parameters from the start, he said, pointing to wording from supporting regulations.

Pebble says North improperly coached tribes and others to get them to push for the same unusual approach.

"I believe that Mr. North was involved in that process and was one of the ones who met with members of this de facto committee and they all worked with a single purpose toward killing the Pebble project," said Tom Collier, Pebble chief executive officer. "And they all did so before the alleged science was done."

The federal Advisory Committee Act requires a public process. One of Pebble Limited Partnership's core assertions in the lawsuit is that North was working in secret through his private email account.

"In October 2013, when faced with potential legal repercussions including a threatened congressional subpoena, North shut down his personal email account and fled the country, hampering PLP's ability to obtain his testimony and documents in this action," Pebble said in an October 2015 court motion to subpoena North.

Headlines from conservative organizations and news outlets show how they latched onto the angle.

"Gone Missing: Emails and the Man at Center of EPA's Alaska Mine Controversy," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in June 2014.

"Ex-EPA official goes off the grid, dodges lawmakers' inquiry into Alaska mine project," Fox News asserted that same month.

At the same time Pebble was looking for North, so was the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Congressional aides began emailing him in July 2013 seeking an interview. He directed the committee to Billie Garde, his Washington, D.C., attorney with a specialty in representing whistleblowers. But despite numerous requests, the committee didn't get its interview.

The committee is anti-EPA and pro-Pebble, plus it wouldn't pay to bring him to the country to testify, Garde said.

On Wednesday, just as North was leaving the Washington, D.C., office building of Pebble's attorneys, he was handed a congressional subpoena from that committee to testify on April 14. He said he will comply.

"(Pebble) filled in the large gaps among the facts with their own concoction of a story," North said in an email, explaining why he is speaking now. "I wanted to get back at the truth."

Garde had advised him to wait until he completed his depositions, which wrapped up Thursday.

World travels

Nothing secretive was going on, North said. Why did he use his personal email account? He said he worked from his home in Soldotna fairly often but had trouble connecting to his EPA mail. So he asked people, including EPA co-workers, to email him at home or forwarded messages there himself.

"There really was not a reason not to," he said.

He said he typically sent emails back to his work account to archive them as public records, but acknowledged he may have missed some.

At one point, his work hard drive failed, and he sent it to EPA's information technology department in Seattle. The IT experts weren't able to salvage it.

"EPA has confirmed that there are missing North documents resulting from a hard drive that 'crashed,' " Pebble says in a court filing.

"I lost quite a bit of work," North said. "The hard drive crashed and there was really not much I could do about it. It was a great inconvenience."

Nor, he said, did he flee the country. After he retired from the EPA in April 2013, he had planned to sail around the world with his wife, Amanda, and young children, just like he said in a 2013 interview with The Redoubt Reporter.

The sailing trip didn't happen, but the world adventure still did. He had bought a hurricane-damaged sailboat only to find out the repairs weren't holding up.

Instead, the family toured Florida then drove across the country to the West Coast. In May 2014, they flew to New Zealand and traveled the country in a camper van, then repeated the adventure in Australia with a four-wheel drive vehicle pulling a camper trailer. They are now in Indonesia and are debating whether to travel across Vietnam or Chile before returning to regular lives. The couple's younger children, now 10 and 11, have been home-schooled.

"There is no school that can offer what the kids have learned as travelers," he said.

They've been living off savings. North, who worked all told 28 years for federal agencies, said he needs to get a real job again.

'Making a record'

And his role in working with tribes that eventually petitioned the EPA to conduct its study? He said he advised tribes just as he advised Pebble -- as part of his job.

He gave presentations within EPA on his strategy of using the Clean Water Act to block Pebble. He said his supervisor was on board but some other officials initially weren't ready to commit.

In 2009, he said he talked to Anchorage lawyer Geoffrey Parker, who represented tribes, about the approach but said he didn't plant the idea.

"It did not come from Phil," Parker said Friday. He declined to say more because of the lawsuit.

In January 2010, Parker emailed him documents including a draft copy of a petition that tribes planned to send to EPA seeking action on Pebble.

"I would appreciate your suggestions, revisions or edits," Parker wrote. North didn't answer right away and Parker emailed his personal account a couple more times in March 2010. North eventually suggested the tribes broaden their anticipated scope of Pebble's impacts beyond fisheries and also suggested six word changes, ideas that ended up in the tribes' petition to EPA on Pebble.

"I don't think that counts as helping them draft it," North said. "I am not going to write it for them, as has been alleged."

He told others at EPA that the tribes would be sending a petition, and forwarded the email chain to his work address, he said. He didn't tell his supervisor about the edits, which he considered minor.

"I was making a record. I was sending it into the system. I wasn't keeping it a secret from anybody," North said.

He said his advice to tribes was small compared to the guidance that EPA gave Pebble and which it provides to any potential developer to smooth out wrinkles ahead of time.

"Pebble Partnership has gotten thousands of hours of public agency time to give feedback on what they are doing. We had meetings after meetings after meetings," North said.

Pebble maintains North's role with the tribes was significant.

"They weren't just minor edits. He helped draft it. His language ended up in the petition. That is just not proper conduct for a federal employee," said Pebble's Collier. "This is outrageous conduct."

The EPA inspector general also was troubled by his help to the tribes.

"We found this action a possible misuse of position, and the EPA's Senior Counsel for Ethics agreed," the inspector general said in a report earlier this year.

The inspector general interviewed North once and tried to follow up but didn't get a response from his attorney, the report said. Not true, said Garde. She cannot find a record of any attempt at follow-up. She has written to the EPA inspector general asking for an add-on to the report saying that he never refused an interview or cooperation.

Overall, EPA was unbiased in its scientific study, the Bristol Bay watershed assessment, the inspector general found.

North said he stands by his work to protect Bristol Bay salmon.

"The resource is the greatest resource of its kind in the world," North said. "And it's really one of the very last in the world."

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