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Alaska governor calls for investigation of armed, EPA-led task force

Sean Doogan
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell Loren Holmes photo

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has called for a special counsel to investigate the actions of the EPA-led, Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force that caused fear and consternation among small-scale gold miners in an isolated part of Interior Alaska at the end of August.

In a press release the governor said, “With a mere last minute notification to our DEC commissioner, Alaska’s attorney general, and the Department of Public Safety, the EPA, BLM and a (Alaska) DEC investigator took it upon themselves to swoop in on unsuspecting miners in remote Alaska."

Between Aug. 18 and 24, eight armed agents -- all wearing body armor and jackets with the word POLICE emblazoned on them -- descended on 30 placer gold mining operations along the Fortymile River near Chicken. Most are small, family-run mines that use nearby streams and rivers to seperate gold from mud, rock, and dirt.

Miners in the area have said they felt intimidated by the actions of the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force -- made up of agents from the FBI, EPA, BLM, Coast Guard, and DOD. A state Department of Environmental Conservation enforcement officer went along with the group, and was also armed. The agents were looking for violations of the federal Clean Water Act, as well as for state environmental violations.

The group also had air support, in the form of a small plane. According to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the EPA -- during a conference call last week -- told her staff that it decided to arm its officers and have them wear the body armor because of advice it received from the Alaska State Troopers about, “rampant drug and human trafficking in the area.”

“I just don’t understand why things have to be so confrontational, and I think the EPA’s explanation of why its officers were armed seems wholly concocted to me,” the senator said.

The Alaska State Troopers claim they gave no such advice to the EPA and had no evidence of drug or human trafficking problems in the Chicken area -- located off the Taylor Highway between Tok and the border with Canada, about 140 miles southeast of Fairbanks.

The governor's office said that Parnell's chief of staff Mike Nizich was briefed by the EPA on Wednesday and that there is no set timeline for its investigation into the task force’s actions and use of armed officers.

Parnell spokesperson Sharon Leighow said, “The governor expects a full report on how this could have transpired and why a state DEC investigator was involved. He is also troubled with what appears to be a lack of coordination with the Alaska State Troopers and a lack of communication with top state officials.”

So far, no citations or criminal charges have been filed as a result of the task force’s investigation into the mining practices of the Fortymile area placer miners.

For their part, the miners are holding a meeting on Sept. 14, in Chicken to address state, and federal officials about the EPA task force’s actions. Congressman Don Young’s office said it would be attending the meeting, and supported the governor’s call for a special counsel to look into the tactics used by the task force.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com