By Jenny Neyman
Kenai’s Phil North’s first impression of Bristol Bay was only a hint of the place. Like fin tips rippling the surface of the water — aware of the fish, but not equipped to judge the potential magnitude of it, hidden from view.
Sure, there were salmon. Otherwise he wouldn’t be there, as an 18-year-old crewing on his uncle’s tender. Presumably a lot of salmon, or else Bristol Bay wouldn’t have been the first stop of season, important enough to dictate the timeline for loading up cargo and heading out of Seattle in order to get to South Naknek for the first fishing opener of the spring. It was a favorite spot personally, being one of the few stops of the summer where North got the chance to get off the boat and hike, feasting his interests in botany and biology on the bounty existing there.
But it wouldn’t be until he was nearing the end of his 20-plus-year career with the Environmental Protection Agency in Alaska that he realized the scope of the place. Not just lots of salmon, but the healthiest wild salmon runs left in the world. Not just ample biodiversity, but one of the few remaining intact, untampered-with watershed systems. A fishery that not only helped pay his summer wage, but that generates $1.5 billion annually in output or sales value across the United States, according to a recent Institute of Social and Economic Research report, and supports local residents socially, spiritually and culturally, as well.
“It was really an enjoyable time and I have fond memories of being there. But when I was doing that I did not really understand. I knew there were a lot of fish, but I’d never seen the rest of the watershed, and I didn’t really have an appreciation of what a special place Bristol Bay is,” North said.
It took about 30 years and the prospect of one of the largest copper mines the world has yet seen digging into the area around the headwaters of that watershed for North to come to realize how special a place Bristol Bay is. And why, to his mind, it needs protection beyond what the companies and state of Alaska would afford. To the point of pulling the EPA’s potent and rarely used trump card — a 404(c) designation under the federal Clean Water Act, which could limit mining in the area before a specific proposal is even submitted.
“It really takes an exceptional situation for it to be used. But when I started talking about it with people, almost everybody said, ‘If there’s anyplace this should be done, it’s Bristol Bay,’ because there’s no place on Earth like Bristol Bay. It really is the last of the great places for salmon,” he said.
North to Alaska
North’s path to Alaska — that “last of the great places for salmon” — has a kinship with those fish. When he was 18 he followed his older brothers up from central California to work for their uncle. Harold Daubenspeck had bought a cannery in the mouth of the Kenai River in 1949, which he called Kenai Packers. By the time the North boys were ready for jobs, Daubenspeck had several to offer, with his fishing business expanded to processing plants in Kenai, Cordova, Kodiak and Bristol Bay, hundreds of aluminum drift boats he’d lease to fishermen, and a fleet of eight salmon tenders, six of which crabbed in the winter and tendered in the summer.
North worked on a crabber/tender that took him from Seattle through Southeast to Bristol Bay, Kodiak, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. After fishing season he’d venture away to various pursuits — a job as a projectionist at a movie theater, some starts and stops and at college, and continuing his fall into love with sailing. But for about 10 years after high school he’d return to Alaska each summer with the salmon.
His first career aspiration was to be a biologist, fascinated with tide pooling and other explorations of the Carmel area as a kid. But in his first college biology class, in about 1976, the instructor effectively took the wind out of that sail.
“The instructor said, ‘For those of you who are here who think you’re actually going to get a job in biology, I just want to dispel you of that notion, because you’re not. There’s no jobs in biology.’ There were about 400 people in that room. And so I was like, ‘Oh, OK, great,’” North said.
He explored naturopathic medicine, environmental toxicology and other interests. Finally, botany got him a degree from the University of California Davis, but through an unconventional route. He took a break from school, working for his uncle in Alaska in the summers and spending the winters in California teaching himself about the area’s plants.
“I would get up in the morning, pull out a map and say, ‘I haven’t been on this road.’ So I’d drive up there and bring all my ID books with me and just work my way along, looking at all the plants. After two years of that I felt like I had taught myself all that I could,” he said.
He returned to UC Davis for a degree, but decided not to continue in botany after graduation.
“I had continued to work up here on boats. I thought fisheries would be a really interesting thing. And I thought, ‘Oh well, if I never get a job, I never get a job. But I’m going to follow my passion,” he said.
But he soon did. He found a graduate program at Humboldt State University that included a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1985 he worked on in-stream flow studies to determine how much water needed to be released from the area’s many dams to protect the dregs of the decimated salmon runs that still trickled into rivers. Five years of that and North longed for the healthy fish runs of Alaska.
“I wanted to come up here and work on real rivers that had real salmon runs and all the wildlife associated with them. Intact ecosystems is what I wanted to work on,” he said.
In 1989 he got a job with EPA based in Anchorage. For eight years he worked as EPA’s mining inspector in the state.
“I worked on every major mine in Alaska, from something as simple as doing an inspection to being involved in permitting,” North said.
Though he is at heart an environmentalist, North saw his job more as a resource to help mines operate responsibly, not to seek ways to shut them down.
“I was told that I was thought of as green but fair. And that is about as high praise as I would ever expect or ever want. I am green, no question about it, but I want to be fair. And I want to make sure that we stick with the facts and apply reasoning to any decision we make,” North said.
But, over the years, North noticed a tipping of the balance in resource management in Alaska, more toward developing than protection of natural resources, he said.
“I’m not anti-development at all, but I am concerned because the long-term trend that we continue to have is destruction of natural resources and, in particular, biological resources,” North said.
“We have to pay attention to what we do. We can’t just develop the landscape willy-nilly because it will be just like everyplace else and we will eventually lose those resources,” North said. “Should we develop every last deposit we find? Or are there some that we say the risks are too high? It was always a question of, ‘How can this mine be built to protect the downstream resources’ — except when the risk is simply too high, and sometimes it is.”
Ten years after moving to Anchorage, North moved to Kenai to establish a local office for the EPA in 1998. At that time he was working on aquatic resource protection issues on the Kenai Peninsula.
“The Kenai River was a priority for EPA at that time. It just fit in with the whole initiative (to be more community based) at that time,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy had done a risk assessment to identify long-term threats to the Kenai River, and as North moved to the Kenai one of his first projects was involvement in the process that stemmed from that assessment. A workshop was convened, Forces of the River, to identify issues needing to be addressed and ideas for doing so. Through that, and funding earmarked by Sen. Ted Stevens, the Kenai River Center grew, the Kenai Watershed Forum was established and the roots for today’s protections of the river were planted.
Not that North takes credit for any of that, or much out of the ordinary in his career. Colleagues see his impact differently, however.
Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said that in the 15 or so years he’s known North, he’s especially appreciated his levelheaded and thoughtful approach. That’s been particularly important given his dual hats as a regulator and as a community resource.
“That’s a very hard role to fulfill in a relatively small community. I think he did an admirable job of that,” Ruffner said.
That unflappable professional demeanor extends to North’s personality, making him a valued colleague in a variety of situations. Ruffner and North took several canoe trips exploring peninsula waterways, including a dicey one down the Anchor River.
“It was very good that both of us were skilled canoeists. There were a lot of trees and it was high water. We were able to make a couple stops where it was essential that we stopped,” Ruffner said. North’s temperament was exactly what one would want from their boat and their buddy in such a situation.
“It was pretty exciting, but Phil was the same as he always is — even keeled,” Ruffner said.
Ruffner credits North with a lasting legacy on the peninsula, one that serves the environment, residents and developers alike.
“He recognized the wetlands that were mapped on the Kenai Peninsula were really not a true reflection of what you saw when you got on the ground. His dedication to trying to get those wetlands more accurately mapped and the locations known and providing that information to the general public through working with lots of different partners is one of those things that will stand a long time,” he said. “Anybody who wants to buy property or do a development project, they are much more informed, and that helps the environment but it also helps people’s pocketbooks. They can do better due diligence before they start a project because the information’s now available. It wouldn’t be here without Phil’s dedication to it.
‘Not an ordinary mine’
In 2005, North was working on aquatic resources across a wide geographic area — the Kenai Peninsula, Bristol Bay, Kodiak Island, Lake and Peninsula, Aleutians East and West boroughs, and the Dillingham census area. But from the time the Pebble Partnership was finding increasingly substantial deposits of porphyry copper, gold and molybdenum in its exploration activities in Southwest Alaska, North’s attention focused more and more on Bristol Bay. By 2009 the prospect of mining in the Bristol Bay region was his full-time job.
“When I first got involved I just thought, ‘OK, another mine, I’ve worked on lots of mines, it’s nothing new.’ As time went on I thought, ‘This is not an ordinary mine. It’s one of the biggest copper mines in the world in the headwaters of the last remaining large-scale salmon habitat in the world. So I just thought we need to really pay special attention to this,” North said.
A complicating factor is that it wasn’t just a potential Pebble Mine on the horizon. There are several deposits in the Bristol Bay region being explored by other mining interests. North advocated for a comprehensive approach to protection of the area, rather than mine by mine. The more he studied the area, the more he thought EPA should utilize its authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to limit or prevent mining activities in the Bristol Bay area. Specifically:
Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authorizes EPA to prohibit, restrict, or deny the discharge of dredged or fill material at defined sites in waters of the United States (including wetlands) whenever it determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearing, that use of such sites for disposal would have an unacceptable adverse impact on one or more of various resources, including fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies, or recreational areas.
In the realm of federal regulation, the EPA’s 404(c) “veto” authority is a potent trump card, akin to classifying a species as endangered, expect more rarely implemented — only 13 times since 1972. The last time it was used was in 2011 revoking a coal-mining permit in West Virginia, where an operator wanted to access an underground coal seam by blasting through a mountaintop. It’s been considered in other instances — including a situation on the North Slope involving Chevron, but the company voluntarily altered its project to avoid the process going any further, North said.
Bristol Bay Native tribes, Native corporations and commercial fishermen petitioned EPA to pursue the 404(c) process, and that’s what really got the ball rolling, North said, initiating a comprehensive assessment of the potential impacts of large-scale mining development on Bristol Bay fisheries, wildlife and Alaska Native cultures of the region in 2011.
“Really, it probably wouldn’t have happened without the tribes writing the letter. When the tribes did that it really got the managers’ attention. EPA takes tribal sovereignty very, very seriously. I think the tribes are really responsible for EPA making the decision to do the assessment,” he said.
An assessment draft was released in May 2012. A revised, peer-reviewed draft was released for public comment April 26, 2013. Public comment was extended for 30 days at the end of May and closed June 30. A final version of the assessment is due out by the end of the year. Once the assessment is complete, EPA will issue its decision. It could do nothing, it could disallow any dredging or discharge in the Bristol Bay region, thus curtailing the feasibility of a large-scale mine, or it could stake out a middle ground of putting stipulations on any mining activity that might happen there. Perhaps stipulations so restrictive that Pebble and other mining interests will find it unfeasible to mine there.
“I don’t expect EPA to come in and just say, ‘No mine.’ It’s possible but I don’t expect that. What I think they’ll do is take the assessment and they’ll pull out the things where the state of practice won’t address all the issues, and they’ll put restrictions in that will have to apply to any permit to any mine in that area,” North said.
If that does happen, North expects a lawsuit to follow. As rarely as 404(c) authority is used, it’s even more rare for it to be invoked without major pushback from permittees and/or the state in which they’d like to do business. The West Virginia coal mine issue, for instance, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the company arguing that EPA couldn’t revoke a permit that had already been granted. EPA won the case, under reasoning that North thinks will prevail if EPA is taken to court over enacting restrictions in the Bristol Bay watershed.
Pebble operators have bristled at the idea of EPA so much as stipulating mining restrictions before Pebble even submits its mining design and permit applications. But North says that 404(c) authority can be invoked at any point in the mining process, to disallow a permit, revoke an already-granted permit or prevent an activity before permit applications are submitted.
“The Clean Water Act Section 404(c) is very clear. It says that EPA can restrict the designation of a site as a discharge point at any time if the administrator determines that there will be an unacceptable adverse effect. So I don’t think there’s any question EPA would prevail,” North said. “And it says in areas where there is an exceptional resource it’s desirable to put those restrictions in place ahead of time, so if they decide to come in they know what the playing field is and they don’t have to invest a lot of money designing something that they can’t do. Unfortunately, Pebble has (already) spent hundreds of million of dollars, but at least it would prevent them from spending more if they really can’t mine there, and it would prevent all the rest of the mining companies from spending more if they can’t mine there.”
The state of Alaska, too, has rankled at EPA doing a 404(c) assessment, calling it a federal overreach. Alaska already has rules, regulations and a permitting process meant to protect the environment. But North says they’re not enough — or that they aren’t enforced strictly enough. He said he’s noticed a trend in Alaska since the Murkowski administration put more emphasis on green-lighting permitting and resource development, with less heed paid to possible environmental damages.
“The state laws are good and they used to apply them pretty strictly, but that doesn’t happen anymore. There’s a lot of talk about Alaska having the best environmental laws in the country and being the most protective of salmon. That argument probably holds water as far as the letter of the law goes. But it depends on the way they’re implemented in the state of Alaska. It doesn’t hold water at all because the state employees are not allowed to apply the laws the way they’re written,” North said.
Being the regional boots on the ground, North got the assessment process started and eventually took on an editing role as different researchers and scientists compiled data.
“People from all over the country got involved and, really, they’re the experts in their fields. I’m the local knowledge. I know Bristol Bay salmon, I know Alaska, I’m a salmon biologist. I was essentially quality control to make sure that the things they were looking at were technically correct and current for Bristol Bay,” North said.
He also is a co-author of one of the most contentious parts of the assessment, collaborating with a mining expert in EPA’s Cincinnati lab to develop the mining scenario on which much of the determination of potential environmental harm is based. Pebble has discussed preliminary plans but not finalized anything to the point of submitting permit applications. How, then, can EPA determine what adverse effects might come of mining in the area — at Pebble or the other deposits — if the scope and specifics of that mining activity haven’t yet been determined?
North and his collogue designed the mining scenarios based on specifics of the area and standard mining practices. In essence, what would a mine likely look like?
“There is only so much technology available worldwide for mining, so we’re going to look at the technology and say, ‘What is the state of the art that’s possible?’ And if you take it to the state of the art, ‘What’s missing so that you’ll have an effect on the resources? What’s the remaining risk?’ And, really, mining companies don’t use state of the art because it’s too expensive, so it’s really more like the state of the practice. And then what’s the risk that remains? You don’t have to have the mine plan to do that,” North said.
The draft assessment has generated some strong opposition from mining proponents and state representatives, in some cases taking issue with specifics, up to objecting to the whole process. North stands by the quality and accuracy of the assessment and said that much of the criticism he’s heard isn’t based on fact, much less motivation to do what’s best for Bristol Bay.
“I think the industry and the state are going to find whatever they can to criticize it. A lot of that is just a public-relations effort,” North said. “I read the state’s comments on the last draft and some of them were very good and insightful and helpful for us to go back and make the changes that we did, and in some cases it’s clear that they didn’t even read (the assessment). I think there’s a lot of hyperbole and ideological hysteria, and it’s unfortunate because I know some of these state people, and most of them have so much integrity and I really respect them as professionals. But they all have to be sensitive to the politics, I guess.”
North hopes to see a 404(c) ruling that protects the Bristol Bay watershed from mining, but he won’t see it in his career. He’s now transitioning into contract and consulting work, having retired this spring.
“I wanted to see it to the end but it stretched on too long. It was time to go, but I saw it at least through what I hope was the final draft. My guess is it won’t change very much,” he said.
North’s life, however, is about to change considerably. He and his wife, Amanda, and kids, Isabella, 19, Sophie, 9, and Nate, 7, and are packing up this summer to head off for South Carolina, and from there, the world, on-board the family’s 50-foot sailboat.
“I like to say it’s an education that money can’t buy. I’m looking forward to home schooling (the kids). Now when they learn the history of someplace they’ll actually be there, it’s not some theoretical place in a book,” North said.
His fascination with sailing started young. As a high-schooler he’d go fishing in the kelp beds around Carmel in California, and one day saw a replica of the Golden Hind anchored in a cove. The skipper invited he and his friend aboard for a tour.
“So we got to go look at their boat, and in the cabin they had a nice fire and it was all filled with pillows and was so cozy and warm and I said, ‘Boy, you guys are so lucky.’ And they said, ‘Luck has nothing to do with this.’ And I thought, ‘Ah, OK, they’re doing this because they want to and they’re making it happen,’” North said.
He learned to sail in California, taking classes, racing and eventually being an instructor, himself. While he’s lived in Kenai he had a 30-foot sailboat in Homer for about five years, after some prodding from a friend.
“I kept saying, ‘Well, maybe next year, not right now,’ and he finally said, ‘You know, you’re going to die before you buy a boat.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, you’re right,’” North said.
But that boat was too small for long-term, live-aboard comfort. The new one he bought in 2009 has three staterooms, “So they (the kids) can all go in a room and close the door, and a center cockpit, which is a little safer than having an aft cockpit,” North said.
After picking it up in Florida, North got it as far as South Carolina before needing to return home. The boat needs to have leaks fixed and some other modifications made. After that’s completed North plans to take the boat to Chesapeake Bay and spend some time on the East Coast getting used to the boat. From there, it’s the Caribbean, the Maritimes and in a year or two head off to Europe, either via Bermuda and the Azores, or Newfoundland and Ireland, or Greenland and Iceland.
“We don’t know, we’ll wait and see,” North said.
Eventually, the plan is to come back to the Kenai Peninsula.
“We’re going to be out as long as we’re having fun. We will end up sailing back here at some time or another and will settle back here, but we don’t know when that will be yet. It could be a couple years, it could be five or six, it just depends,” he said.
He’s waited long enough, since that first sailboat he toured as a kid in California. It’s time to head back to the sea.
“Ever since then I’ve had a plan to do this,” he said. “There were other things I wanted to do, like be a biologist, and I so got to do that. That’s been my career for the last 28 years, so now it’s time to go do the sailing, which I’ve been planning for such a long time.”