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EPA cleared of bias in Alaska mine controversy despite lost emails

By   /   January 14, 2016  /   No Comments

Despite acknowledging it could not obtain more than two years of emails from a key employee, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General on Wednesday effectively cleared the EPA of allegations of bias in its quest to preemptively kill a proposed mine in southwest Alaska.

The troubling details of the missing emails raise charges of an EPA whitewashing, a scenario and an allegation all-too-familiar in the Obama administration.

Tom Collier, CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, the investment group behind the proposed copper and gold mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, said the EPA continues to “minimize the seriousness of its own misconduct with respect to the Pebble Project, while sweeping under the rug the complicity of its most senior officials.”

Watchdog.org file photo

EPA WHITEWASHING? Another Obama administration agency ‘loses’ key emails amid an investigation. Despite two years of missing emails from an EPA official, the agency’s inspector general says there’s nothing to see here.

He called the IG’s report an “embarrassing failure” to understand what several congressional committees, an independent federal judge in Alaska and an independent review by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen (in the Clinton administration) have already found — “that EPA acted improperly … and was biased in its actions.”

RELATED: Report raises concerns the EPA stacked the deck against Alaska mine project

The EPA was elated by the inspector general’s lengthy“independent, in-depth” review. The report, according to the agency, “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.”

“We stand behind our study and our public policy, and we are confident in our work to protect Bristol Bay,” the EPA said in a statement.

The press release left out some important details from the IG report, however.

The inspector general reported “scope limitations” for the evaluation. Region 10 of the EPA, which includes Alaska, “identified 25 months of missing emails” from Phil North, an EPA ecologist who has since retired and disappeared. Those emails aren’t just missing, they’re gone — allegedly erased in a hard drive crash.

North was a key player in the process leading up to the EPA’s push to preemptively veto the Pebble Mine project.

“As a result, we are unable to draw any specific conclusions related to that employees’ emails during that (52-month) period,” the report states.

The IG’s report suggests North helped draft a petition in 2010 from Bristol Bay area tribes requesting EPA’s intervention. That action is among many charges of bias and misconduct the Pebble Partnership has brought against the EPA in a federal lawsuit.

The Pebble Partnership holds mineral claims to lands owned by the state in the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers of the Bristol Bay watershed, otherwise known as the Pebble Deposit Area. The area contains one of the largest known undeveloped deposits of copper in the world, and the partnership has been exploring the development of a mine there for more than a decade.

The area also is home to one of the world’s largest salmon runs.

After its controversial Bristol Bay Watershed Analysis, the EPA in July 2014 proposed substantial limits on development in the Pebble Deposit area.

Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, in his analysis released in October, concluded the EPA “failed to address important considerations” that would be part of a permit process, relying on hypothetical scenarios in moving to shut down the mine concept before a proposal was brought forward for review.

In short, Cohen concluded the process was not fair.

“The fairest and most appropriate process to evaluate possible development in the Pebble Deposit Area would use the established regulatory Permit/NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Process to assess a mine permit application, rather than using an assessment based upon the hypothetical mining scenarios described in the BBWA (Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment) as the basis for imposing potentially prohibitive restrictions on future mines,” Cohen asserts in an executive summary of the 346-page analysis.

The evaluation was conducted by the Cohen Group and global law firm DLA Piper for the Pebble Partnership.

Following the release of the inspector general’s report, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the review “draws misleading conclusions without having all of the facts.”

Smith is chairman of the House’s Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which in November held a hearing to review the EPA’s action. Once more, witnesses at that hearing said the EPA did not rely on sound science in coming to its decision on the unprecedented preemptive ruling, contrary to the inspector general’s findings.

“It also appears that the IG failed to review a significant body of publicly available information brought to light by the Science Committee that demonstrates clear instances of bias and predetermination on the part of the EPA,” Smith said in a statement. He said the committee will continue to investigate the EPA’s actions.

More than 20 different Obama administration officials have lost or destroyed email communications. Arguably the most egregious example was the lost emails of Lois Lerner, the former IRS agent who led the office accused of targeting nonprofit conservative groups.

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.