CHICKEN -- Some 40 people gathered in a community hall in this remote Interior Alaska community Saturday to throw questions at federal bureaucrats about a series of environmental raids last month that included armed agents in search of alleged water polluters. The Environmental Protection Agency had come to face a crowd of local gold miners upset about the actions of its Environmental Crimes Task Force, which raised accusations of federal overreach as the task force entered the Chicken area to investigate miners thought to be in violation of the Clean Water Act.
On Saturday, it was the EPA on the defense as Alaskans, joined by Gov. Sean Parnell, brimmed with outrage over the August scare tactics of a task force that had arrived armed, wearing body armor, and according to the miners, at least, unnecessarily intimidating. They swarmed into area mines, not stopping to explain what they were doing there until confronted by confused and wary miners.
The man facing the ire on Saturday was Ken Fisher, the Alaska Deputy Director for the EPA. But many, including Gov. Parnell -- who had flown to the Chicken meeting from Fairbanks -- believed Fisher was the wrong man, in the wrong place. Fisher was not involved in the Environmental Crimes Task Force, and during the course of the two and-a-half hour meeting, was often asked questions he couldn't answer.
Between Aug. 22-27, the task force checked 30 claims in the Fortymile Mining District. The area includes parts of the Fortymile National Wild and Scenic River, a federally controlled, 32-mile stretch of waterway dotted by small, family-run placer mines. They dig the ground and use the local streams to separate valuable gold from dirt, rock, and mud. They are required to let muddy water settle and clear before returning it to the creeks and rivers.
Chicken miners said they felt mistreated by the presence of armed, body armor-clad officers, bursting forth, with no warning, from the trees to look for dirty water.
The EPA said the task force's compliance checks were both casual and consensual. Few in the room on Saturday agreed with that assessment, however.
"There is nothing casual or consensual about eight armed men who come running into camp, and head straight for your sluice box," said David Likins, an area gold miner.
In the past, water quality checks have been made by Bureau of Land Management compliance specialists, or people from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. They usually carried a clipboard, a smile, and some water sampling equipment. Often they carried a gun, because after all, Chicken is rural and bears often outnumber the 17 or so full-time residents. But according to the miners, Alaska DEC or federal BLM agents never before swarmed in large numbers, wearing body armor and jackets emblazoned to intimidate, with one word: POLICE.
Tales of human trafficking and Chicken drug cartels
According to staff from the offices of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the EPA outfitted the Environmental Crimes Task Force so forcefully because local law enforcement – none other than the Alaska State Troopers – told the federal agency that this vicinity of Interior Alaska was rife with drug and human trafficking. Trouble is, the Troopers deny having said any such thing. Troopers tell Alaska Dispatch they have no evidence of dangerous activity in the area.
At the cramped meeting, Fisher said the EPA was advised by various state and federal law enforcement agencies about the possible risks its team might encounter but he was unable who, exactly, warned the Feds that Chicken was a dangerous place.
Fisher did, however, explain that two of the miners under investigation were known to have outstanding arrest warrants, and one had a history of armed robbery, assaulting a police officer, bank robbery, and child endangerment. Citing privacy and ongoing investigation protocols, Fisher declined to name the miners.
In any case, no one got shot – a very real possibility in the middle of nowhere when armed strangers come running out of the woods and onto a gold miner's claim.
"We believe there were no problems because of the actions of our trained and professional officers," Fisher said as the room burst into rowdy laughter.
No charges or citations from EPA, thus far
Fisher said the EPA was in Chicken because it had evidence of egregious and continuing water quality violations, but admitted the bad actors were just a small sub-set of the area mining community.
"If the environmental task force was necessary because of gross violations of the Clean Water Act, they should have gone to the gross violators and not to every mine in the district," said Likins.
The EPA used Bureau of Land Management compliance records on all of the area's mines in order to choose which would be visited by the task force, according to Fisher. The EPA, he said, was only targeting mines with a past history of violations, as well as those concluded to be major concerns, based on aerial observation.
So far, no charges or citations have been issued by the EPA to any Chicken area miners. At least five miners who said they were raided by the task force, claimed Saturday they'd never before been cited for violating state or federal environmental laws.
Even the BLM – landlords, of sorts, for much of the 60 percent of federal lands within Alaska's borders – expressed reservations about the EPA's use of armed and armored task force.
"We waffled back and forth, honestly about how involved we wanted to be. It was a gut-wrenching exercise, and wasn't taken lightly," said BLM Associate Alaska Director Ted Murphy.
Gov. Parnell said he believed the Chicken miners were over-targeted with excessive force. He has called for a special counsel to investigate the task force, but worries about what the EPA might do to explain its use of an armed task force to investigate what are, ostensibly, minor infractions.
"My next concern is that people might now be facing trumped-up charges because the EPA is trying to justify its actions," Parnell said. "I don't believe we are getting all the facts."
Rep. Young is asking one of the miners to travel to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress about what happened, citing the Chicken raid as another example of federal over-reach and heavy-handed regulation.
Why werent any mines shut down?
The miners wanted assurances the EPA would never again use the level of force it did this fall to check for water quality violations. After all, they pointed out, if the EPA believed the mines were so dirty that they required a surprise visit from the task force, why weren't any shut down on-the-spot?
Presumably, they would still be polluting the water if their mines were, indeed, so dangerous, many pointed out in the Chicken community hall on Saturday.
When miner Linda Kile explained her encounter with the EPA task force, her voice quivered.
"I thought they were starting World War III," she said.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com