IG finds no bias in EPA Bristol Bay assessment

The Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment is on the up-and-up, at least according to the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General.

Based on “obtainable records,” an Inspector General report issued Jan. 13 found no bias in how the EPA conducted its lengthy assessment of the potential impacts of mining within Bristol Bay watershed.

The agency’s assessment process also met requirements for peer review and public involvement and followed appropriate procedures for verifying the quality of the information in the assessment before 1,000-plus page document was released to the public in early 2014, according to the report.

While the report absolves the agency of misconduct regarding alleged bias, it notes that 25 months worth of missing government emails from the retired employee believed to be retired ecologist Phillip North could not be recovered and evaluated.

Further, the IG notes that North used nongovernmental email to comment on a draft 404(c) petition submitted to the agency from tribes before it was officially submitted to the EPA.

“We found this action was a possible misuse of position, and the EPA’s senior counsel for ethics agreed,” the report states. “Agency employees must remain impartial in dealings with outside parties, particularly those that are considering petitioning or have petitioned the agency to take action on a matter.”

The 17-month IG review of the agency began in May 2014 and focused on the process used to develop the assessment. Its conclusion contrasts with a recent report authored by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen that was critical of the EPA’s process, finding the agency to be cozy with scientific and local Alaska Native groups that oppose Pebble Mine.

 “EPA is pleased 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 laws, regulations, policies and procedures and were based on sound scientific analysis,” EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran said in a formal statement. “We stand behind our study and our public process, and we are confident in our work to protect Bristol Bay.”

The Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment ultimately determined that large-scale mining in the region would irreparably harm Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon fisheries that currently support much of the areas economy.

Subsequently, the EPA used the assessment as its basis for using its Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authority to prohibit a large mine in the watershed, a proposal that would effectively kill the prospect of developing Pebble Limited Partnerships premier copper and gold deposits.

The 404(c) action is on hold as a federal court tries to determine what the IG’s office and former Secretary Cohen could not agree on: whether the EPA conspired with Pebble opposition to reach the conclusion in the assessment.

Pebble sought and received an injunction to halt the EPA’s work until the court case is resolved.

Pebble CEO Tom Collier called the IG report an “embarrassing failure” and a “whitewash” in a formal statement.

“Based on a limited number of documents received through (the Freedom of Information Act), we were able to place in front of the IG incontrovertible evidence that EPA had reached final decisions about Pebble before undertaking any scientific inquiry; that it had inappropriately colluded with environmental activists; that it had manipulated the scientific process and lied about its intentions and actions to both us and to U.S. Congress,” Collier said. “Just as importantly, our record shows that these abuses reach to the highest offices within the agency.”

Officials from the EPA’s offices of the Administrator, Region 10, Water, Research and Development and a retired Region 10 ecologist, presumably Phil North, were interviewed for the IG report. Additionally, more than 8,300 emails sent or received by agency officials between January 2008 and mid-May 2012 were reviewed.

North, who retired from the EPA in April 2013, has received national notoriety for his involvement in the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. Pebble supporters and general EPA critics have zeroed in on him as the likely link for the alleged collusion with mine opponents.

Attempts by the IG to access North’s personal email through subpoena were unsuccessful, as his whereabouts are unknown, the report states. Because the IG could not find North, the office issued a subpoena to North’s lawyer, who refused to accept service on behalf of North.

North also did not surface when subpoenaed for deposition last November in Pebble’s ongoing suit against the EPA in federal court.

The IG recommended to the EPA that the agency incorporate examples of “misuse of position” in its ethics training as well as mandatory tribal training to define appropriate parameters for Tribal assistance by agency staff.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
01/14/2016 - 10:00am

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