EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Republican-led committee that the agency cannot access some e-mails belonging to a biologist who worked on a controversial mining project assessment. It is a hard drive problem, but McCarthy was careful to not call it a "hard drive crash" or destroyed hard drive.
"I don't believe this is a missing hard drive issue," McCarthy told the panel, "There is a challenge getting access to the data on it... I'm still hoping we recover all those e-mails."
"I heard similar testimony yesterday," replied Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, dryly referring to the committee's Tuesday hearing about a critical crashed hard drive
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Investigation into mine report
With the EPA, the committee is investigating whether the biologist involved, or anyone else at the agency, colluded with environmentalists to produce a negative assessment of a mining proposal in Alaska. A separate investigation by the agency's inspector general is also underway.
The environmental assessment concluded that the Pebble Mine project could significantly harm the sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. As a result, in February, the agency essentially froze the permitting process for the mine as it reviews options for the area.
McCarthy insisted the agency is trying to recover the biologists' missing e-mails, but also tried to downplay his role in the mine assessment.
"He's not a decison maker in this process," she said. "He inputed into the science assessment that's been fully peer-reviewed. We have not made any decision on Bristol Bay, we've just taken a first step."
"But he could have colluded..." fired back Meadows.
"Which is why it's important the (inspector general) finish his report," McCarthy replied.
Did the EPA break the law?
Meadows pressed McCarthy on whether the agency broke federal records-keeping law. "Were all his emails preserved according to the Federal Records Act or was a law violated?"
McCarthy answered that the EPA notified the National Archives and Records Administration about the hard drive problem Tuesday.
"I think we have notified the appropriate authorities that we may have some e-mails that we cannot produce that we should have kept."
Issa (re)threatens contempt charge
During the same hearing, Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, also demanded that the agency turn over documents that the committee subpoenaed last year.
"You have not complied with the subpoena," he told McCarthy. "I am telling you, the time to comply is now. If it is not complied with... this committee will consider and vote on contempt."
Issa has made this threat to McCarthy before, but indicated Wednesday that he expects a response within days or he is ready to act on the contempt charge.
By the end of the hearing, McCarthy and Issa agreed to let their staffs work behind the scenes.
"I hope that over the next few days our folks and your folks can resolve this with all the e-mails," Issa concluded.