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Both state, feds probe August EPA task force raids near Chicken

Sean Doogan
EPA deputy director for Alaska, Ken Fisher, expresses his frustration during angry questioning from Chicken gold miners, congressional aides, and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, during a meeting at the Chicken community hall on Sept 14, 2013. Fisher and representatives from the BLM were in the small eastern Alaska community to participate in a meeting where the federal agencies were questioned about August raids. Loren Holmes photo

In the halls of Washington, D.C. and back in Alaska, politicians are looking into the actions of what they say is a heavy-handed Environmental Protection Agency. Gov. Sean Parnell announced Thursday he has selected Anchorage attorney Brent Cole to serve as a Special Counsel to investigate the August raids of the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force -- an EPA-led group of armed and armored officers that descended on the area to look for violations of the Clean Water Act.

Cole has 90 days to submit his report on the Task Force’s compliance checks in the Fortymile mining district, a 6.5-million-acre mineral claims area that partly sits inside the Fortymile National Wild and Scenic River. The area is controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation oversees mining water quality permits there, under the authority and oversight of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Miners said that during the week of Aug. 22, seven armed agents descended on area mines, sped past miners on all-terrain vehicles or on foot without identifying themselves, and began checking equipment.

The agents were all wearing body armor and jackets with the word “POLICE” emblazoned on them. Miners, used to water-quality compliance checks that usually entail an officer showing up with a clipboard and a smile, claimed the EPA was heavy-handed in its August foray into the Fortymile area. A state DEC officer was part of the task force, something did not please Parnell.

“Alaskans deserve to know all the facts in this case,” Parnell said in a Thursday press release. “While these facts are being gathered, I will continue to be vigilant in defense of Alaskans’ liberty and personal property,” Parnell said.

A September meeting in Chicken between the miners, the EPA, BLM and representatives from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young’s offices was attended by Parnell, but offered the miners few answers to their questions about the Task Force’s actions. Parnell vowed to begin an investigation into the matter and called the EPA Task Force’s actions “over-targeted and done with excessive force.” So far, no citations or charges have been filed against any of the 30 or so miners contacted by the EPA Task Force. The EPA has said it had evidence of “potential egregious felony violations of the Clean Water Act in the Fortymile District.”

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill

Also on Thursday, in Washington, D.C., the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources began two hours of testimony about what some on the committee say is evidence of EPA overreach in enforcing environmental regulations. Young, Alaska's lone representative in the House, is a member of the committee and asked one of the Fortymile miners to attend.

“We feel it was very intimidating to have regulators come in like they did with full body armor, automatic weapons, and shotguns, and not introduce themselves. It was very disconcerting,” said Sheldon Maier, president of the Fortymile Mining District, who testified before the House subcommittee Thursday.

Representatives of the EPA itself were not present at the Capitol Hill hearing because of the ongoing government shutdown, but the agency has told the Alaska Dispatch that it would not be answering any more press inquiries about the actions of its task force.

The EPA refuses to explain why it chose to use its Enforcement Task Force to do what were basically compliance checks of Chicken-area mines. Murkowski said she believes the EPA’s reasoning is, “wholly concocted” and said her staffers were told by the agency that one reason for the use of armed officers was a tip from the Alaska State Troopers that there was, “ongoing and rampant drug and human trafficking in the area.”

The Troopers have since denied ever telling the EPA that and said they have no evidence the Chicken area is dangerous.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com