When Phil North retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, after a mostly quiet twenty-three-year career in Alaska, his plan was to embark on an around-the-world sailing trip with his wife and two young children. But when it came time to weigh anchor, there was a problem: the aging boat that North had docked in South Carolina proved unsalvageable. A hunt for another suitable vessel in his price range yielded nothing. After a series of discussions and a vote, the family decided, in early 2014, to fly to New Zealand. “We were only going to go for three months, but we loved it and ended up buying a camper van and driving around for ten months,” North, who is fifty-nine, told me recently. “And then our visa ran out, and we thought, We’re so close to Australia, we can’t not go.” So they went, and toured the country for another year.
As it turned out, North had good reason to stay away. While he was living out his retirement dreams abroad, something odd was happening back home. He was becoming perhaps the most infamous retired Alaskan bureaucrat anywhere—a rogue scientist on the lam, the subject of lawsuits, subpoenas, and congressional inquiries and hearings. At issue was North’s work on the Pebble Mine, an immense gold-and-copper prospect in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. For more than a decade, a fractious debate had pitted the Pebble Limited Partnership, the Canadian developer, against a coalition of indigenous tribes, commercial fishermen, and conservationists, who objected to locating an open-pit mine near the headwaters of one of the world’s largest salmon runs. At the time, North was an ecologist in the E.P.A.’s Aquatic Resources Program, working alone out of an office in the Kenai Peninsula town of Soldotna, where he dealt with enforcement, outreach, and education pertaining to the Clean Water Act. He was content, good at his job, and uninterested in politicking his way up the E.P.A. ladder. He prided himself on having a good reputation—“green but fair”—with the networks of regulators, consultants, and N.G.O.s that surround Alaska’s extraction industry, on both the business and conservation sides.
North was assigned to work with Pebble in 2005, when the project’s advanced exploration phase got under way, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the E.P.A. took a more active role, announcing the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, a multi-year, peer-reviewed study of the mine’s potential impacts. The study’s results led the E.P.A. to conclude that a mine such as Pebble would pose too great an environmental risk to the region. In 2014, it sought to curb its development by invoking Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which, though rarely used, gives the E.P.A. the power to restrict projects that would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on surrounding waters and ecosystems. North, who had been his division’s point man on the assessment, necessarily played a role—though not, as E.P.A. officials have pointed out, in any sort of decision-making capacity.