The top Environmental Protection Agency official in Alaska will go in front of Congress this week to face questioning over his agency's handling of the planned Pebble Mine project.
Dennis McLerran, the administrator for the EPA's Region 10, is set to testify in front of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday. Region 10 encompasses Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.
The Pebble Mine project is a proposed mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay that could have been lucrative were it not derailed, if not killed, by an EPA report showing it could harm water and salmon near the mine.
The hearing on Thursday will be the second hearing the committee has held on the Pebble Mine project. The first, in November, was on the EPA's "predetermined efforts" to block the mine.
McLerran likely will be facing a hostile group of Republicans on the committee. The GOP has roundly criticized the EPA for blocking the mine, and they have suggested the agency colluded with local tribes to block the project.
Phil North, an EPA ecologist, is accused of illegally working with tribes in the area to block the project, having used his personal email to consult the tribes on how to petition for a preemptive veto. He fled to Australia to avoid being interviewed by investigators.
An inspector general report found 25 months of the ecologist's emails have been "lost."
According to the report, North was guilty of a possible misuse of his position. He helped edit a tribal petition to block the Pebble Mine under a provision of the Clean Water Act using his personal email in April 2010, a month before the petition was sent to the EPA.
"When reviewing the draft petition, it was not clear whether [North] participated in a personal or official capacity," the watchdog said. "It was also not clear whether commenting on the draft petition using personal email was allowable under the job duties of [North]."
North's supervisor told investigators that he would not have allowed him to participate in the crafting of the petition if he had been aware of his actions. North worked by himself in a remote Alaskan location.
The EPA has repeatedly denied it has issued a preemptive veto under the Clean Water Act that would allow officials to block the permit. Instead, it contends the project is still being reviewed, although in 2014 the agency signaled that it could use the preemptive veto to block the project.
Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the committee, has been hawkish on investigating the EPA's role in the Pebble Mine affair.
In addition to the November hearing, Smith has commissioned an independent report about the EPA's dealings with the mine and ripped the EPA inspector general report from January. He said he intends to question the inspector general about how his office went about the investigation and why it couldn't turn up the months of emails from North.
Smith has previously said he believes the Pebble Mine affair is a sign that the EPA will reject projects in new and possibly illegal ways.
"If we allow the EPA to pursue this path of action the agency will have the power to tell states, local government, and even private citizens how they can develop their land before a permit application has ever been filed. This is unprecedented and dangerous," he said in November.