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Policy: Technology

Now EPA says it can't find emails requested by Congress because of hard drive crash

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Congress,Sean Higgins,Alaska,EPA,Technology,House Oversight

Does the federal government have any systems at all to back its email archives? Maybe not, because the Environmental Protection Agency is now using the same excuse as the IRS is using in response to a Congressional subpoena: the computer ate our homework.

In a hearing Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency was still trying to recover the emails from a now-retired employee who was involved in a controversial EPA evaluation of a proposed mine project in Alaska's Bristol Bay.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., asked McCarthy: "Were all of his emails preserved according to the Federal Records Act or was a law violated?"

McCarthy responded: "I think we have notified the appropriate authorities that we may have some emails that we cannot produce that we should have kept. I do not know yet whether we can recover all of these or not." She added that later: "We are not sure where the failure came from and what it is attributed to."

A committee aide told the National Journal that an apparent hard drive crash in 2010 is preventing the recovery. The crash reportedly happened right around the same time that the committee first started expressing an interest in the emails.

The former EPA employee in question was Philip North, a fish biologist. North contributed to an agency study released in January that said a proposed mining project in the Bristol Bay area could hurt the salmon population. The agency has not been able to recovery any emails from him from 2002 through 2010.

The EPA's Inspector General is probing some possible "collusion" between people inside the agency and environmental groups opposed to mining regarding the report's recommendations. "I look forward to his report," McCarthy said.

McCarthy said the agency was still trying to recover some of the emails, but that this has been complicated by the fact that they have lost contact with North, who is reportedly on an extended trip to New Zealand. The agency first told the National Archives of the problem on Tuesday, but had not told the committee until Wednesday.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., was incredulous: "Two different government agencies tried to convince Congress and the American people this week that emails disappear into thin air. We didn’t believe it when we heard it from the IRS and I’m not inclined to believe the EPA’s excuses. The Federal Records Act is very clear. This is either willful ignorance on the part of the EPA or gross incompetence. I hope the EPA will follow through and turn over the relevant information it promised to the Oversight Committee months ago."

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