House Republicans are using a deposition with a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee to argue that the agency’s evaluation of a proposed Alaska mine was botched.
The House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is highlighting their deposition with Philip North, a biologist formerly based in Alaska, to make their case about the EPA’s handling of the Pebble Mine.
The Science Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the mine, where lawmakers will grill Dennis McLerran, the regional EPA administrator for the area that includes Alaska.
In excerpts provided to The Hill, North admitted that he had formed an opinion about the mine before he participated in the EPA’s biological assessment on which it based its findings.
“Would you say that you were an advocate within the EPA for the position that the agency should use Section 404(c) authority with regards to the Pebble project?” a Science Committee staffer asked North in the deposition earlier this month, referring to the process the EPA wanted to use to block the mine.
“Yes, I would say that's fair,” North responded.
“At the time you formulated your opinion on the 404(c) action with regard to the Pebble deposit, had the EPA produced any scientific studies, reports or anything of that nature with regards to the Pebble deposit?” the staffer asked, to which North responded, “No.”
Later in the deposition, North said he didn’t find anything inappropriate about his actions.
He also defended his decision to push others in EPA toward his opinion on Pebble.
“I think it was my job to brief them and to inform people about the issue, and then it was really strictly up to them to decide whether they agreed or not,” he said. “I felt that we should use 404(c), and I made that case.”
The committee said North’s statements fit into a conclusion that the EPA didn’t act fairly.
“The committee's investigation has found that the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment is a biased document prepared by the very EPA employees who internally advocated for an advanced 404(c) action for the Pebble Mine,” the panel said in a statement.
The GOP accused North of working improperly with environmentalists and Alaska Native tribes to get Pebble blocked.
The GOP has also accused North of fleeing the country to avoid being interviewed by lawmakers for the case, something he has denied.
EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison defended the agency and said there was nothing improper about how it dealt with Pebble
“We stand behind our study and our public process, and we are confident in our work to protect Bristol Bay,” she said.
“We note that the Inspector General’s independent, in-depth review confirms that our rigorous scientific study of the Bristol Bay watershed and our robust public process were entirely consistent with our regulations, policies, and established procedures and were based on sound scientific analysis.”
Billie Garde, North’s attorney, said the full deposition and other information shows that the Science Committee is mischaracterizing North’s involvement.
“As Mr. North’s deposition and testimony makes clear, he was never in a position as a decision-maker and everything he did was consistent with his job responsibilities and duties as a public servant,” she said. “And nothing about having his own opinion regarding the impact of a mine on Bristol Bay was improper.”
Garde said North acted completely within his job description, including by consulting outside groups throughout the process.
The panel plans to release the full deposition transcript Thursday.