Retired EPA scientist Phil North, the man the Pebble Partnership says was the mastermind behind the effort to block its proposed mine in southwest Alaska, spent a full day answering questions from a congressional committee Thursday.
Now that the staff of the House Science Committee is done questioning him, North says his involvement in the Pebble mine is over.
“I hope it is,” he clarified, in an interview on the steps of the Rayburn House Office Building, in the U.S. Capitol complex. “You know, it’s hard to predict what will happen. I thought I was done when I retired.”
North’s whereabouts were unknown – at least to Pebble executives – for nearly two years.
But the company eventually found him. Pebble compelled his return to the U.S. from the Asia-Pacific, where he was on a grand tour with his family, to answer questions related to a lawsuit over the proposed Pebble mine. North sat for questions from Pebble attorneys in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, and then received a Congressional subpoena to answer more questions. North says the House committee is requiring confidentiality, so he was not free to disclose what was discussed in the closed session.
Pebble claims North improperly colluded with anti-mine activists.
“Mr. North was part of a group at EPA that made up their minds that this project should be vetoed before any of the science that they alleged they did was done, and that they manipulated the process in such a way as to make that outcome become a reality,” Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in an interview with KDLG this month
Collier points to emails that he says show North helped mine opponents draft their petition to the EPA. Then, according to Pebble, North disappeared when questions and lawsuits arose.
North, though, says he’s just been traveling with his family, not dodging or absconding. He says they left a paper trail when they bought a car in Australia and registered it at an address where they lived for a time, and where they continued to receive mail.
“And that’s a public record. They could have found it if they wanted to,” North said. “So this idea that we were somehow trying to avoid being found, is really, I mean, that’s kind of silliness.”
Before he retired, North says he was just doing the job he was paid to do: protecting aquatic resources, in this case, Bristol Bay, using the powers Congress granted in the Clean Water Act.
“I was the staff person for that program,” he says, “so I was the person who had to initially evaluate the information, to collect the information and evaluate it, and then say, ‘how should we proceed?’”
North says the actual decision to use a lesser-known passage of the Clean Water Act against the mine, before Pebble applied for a permit, was made by higher-ups at EPA.
“I initiated the idea,” he said. “But to characterize me as some conspirator, it doesn’t match the facts. It’s a misrepresentation of the way the process works.”
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology plans another Pebble hearing on April 28, featuring EPA regional Administrator Dennis McLerran. North doesn’t expect to attend. He is no longer under any subpoena. He plans to rejoin his wife and kids on the island of Bali, and then decide which country to visit next.