When agents with the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force surged out of the wilderness around the remote community of Chicken wearing body armor and jackets emblazoned with POLICE in big, bold letters, local placer miners didn't quite know what to think.
Did it really take eight armed men and a squad-size display of paramilitary force to check for dirty water? Some of the miners, who run small businesses, say they felt intimidated.
Others wonder if the actions of the agents put everyone at risk. When your family business involves collecting gold far from nowhere, unusual behavior can be taken as a sign someone might be trying to stage a robbery. How is a remote placer miner to know the people in the jackets saying POLICE really are police?
Miners suggest it might have been better all around if officials had just shown up at the door -- as they used to do -- and said they wanted to check the water.
Lots of Federal land in Alaska
Alaska's vast Interior, which sprawls to the Canadian border, has been the site of federal-local distrust in the past. It was near this area, 130 miles northwest of Chicken, that National Park Service rangers pointed shotguns at, then tackled and arrested a septuagenarian, for not stopping his boat in midstream of the Yukon River in the fall of 2010. Jim Wilde, 70 years old at the time, had been ordered to prepare to be boarded for a safety inspection.
Wilde didn't much like that demand. He swore at park rangers and then headed for shore and a meeting on terra firma. Wilde was arrested and taken to the jail in Fairbanks, more than 100 miles away. He was later tried and found guilty by a federal magistrate for failing to comply with a lawful order from federal agents.
The state of Alaska, as a whole, can be a place of deeply-rooted mistrust between locals and the agents who try to enforce federal rules.
Alaska has more federally owned and managed land than any other U.S. state. More than 65 percent of its land is under some sort of federal control. A multitude of federal parks, preserves and wilderness areas are patrolled by agents from more than a dozen U.S. agencies. Many of the people in rural parts of the state, which are either under federal control or border federally-managed areas, have more contact with federal officers than they do with representatives from the state.
Surprised by armed group of officers
Miners from the Chicken area -- a gold mining town of just 17 full-time residents and dozens of seasonal miners off the Taylor Highway, between Tok and the Canadian border -- said that during the third week of August they were surprised by groups of four to eight armed officers, who swarmed onto their mining claims with little or no warning.
The officers were armed and wearing body armor. They were part of the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force and were there to check for violations of section 404 of the Clean Water Act, according to several miners who were contacted by the group. Section 404 governs water discharges into rivers, streams, lakes and oceans.
The task force's methods are now being questioned by the miners as well as the Alaska congressional delegation.
"Imagine coming up to your diggings, only to see agents swarming over it like ants, wearing full body armor, with jackets that say POLICE emblazoned on them, and all packing side arms," said C.R. "Dick" Hammond, a Chicken gold miner who got a visit from the task force.
"How would you have felt?" Hammond asked. "You would be wondering, 'My God, what have I done now?'"
Hammond and other Chicken area miners aren't alone in wondering what they have done now. Both Alaska U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich have inquired into the task force's actions. Congressman Don Young is also looking into it. They have been having a difficult time getting straight answers from the EPA.
Rampant drug and human trafficking?
The EPA has refused to publicly explain why it used armed officers as part of what it called a "multi-jurisdictional" investigation of possible Clean Water Act violations in the area.
A conference call was held last week to address the investigation. On the line were members of the Alaska Congressional delegation, their staff, state officers, and the EPA. According to one Senate staffer, the federal agency said it decided to send in the task force armed and wearing body armor because of information it received from the Alaska State Troopers about "rampant drug and human trafficking going on in the area."
The miners contacted by the task force were working in the area of the Fortymile National Wild and Scenic River. The federal designation, made in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, protects 32 miles between Chicken and Eagle, Alaska. It is a remote area, close to the Canadian border and the town of Boundary. The nearest city of any real size is Fairbanks, 140 miles to the northwest. It was unknown to everyone in the area that there is a rampant problem with drug and human traffickers.
This also came as news to the Alaska State Troopers, whom the EPA said supplied the information about drugs and human trafficking, and at least one U.S. senator.
"Their explanation -- that there are concerns within the area of rampant drug trafficking and human trafficking going on -- sounds wholly concocted to me," said Murkowski, R-Alaska.
"The Alaska State Troopers did not advise the EPA that there was dangerous drug activity. We do not have evidence to suggest that is occurring," said Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters.
The Alaska Department of Law said it knew of the task force's investigation but that it did not advise the group about any ongoing problems or dangers in the Fortymile River area.
'Heavy-handed, heavy-armor approach'
"This seems to have been a heavy-handed, and heavy-armor approach," said Murkowski. "Why was it so confrontational? The EPA really didn't have any good answers for this."
According to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, one of its compliance officers went along with the task force, but only to look for potential state violations at the mine sites.
The DEC officer was armed.
The task force is made up of members of the EPA, the FBI, Coast Guard, Department of Defense, the Alaska Department of Public Safety and the DEC. The chief investigator, Matt Goers, said he could not discuss the details of the recent Fortymile River investigations. So far, no charges, state or federal, have resulted from the group's work last month.
Miners in the area are not waiting for the results of the investigation. They have met in Chicken and are demanding a Sept. 14 meeting with the EPA, the state, and the members of the Alaska federal delegation to discuss the task force's tactics.
"Compliance exams are a normal thing for miners. Usually (Bureau of Land Management) or DEC points out a problem and you correct it. This (the task force's action) was way over the top and uncalled for. It was a massive show of intimidation," said David Likins, a gold miner in the Fortymile Mining District.
Most of the mines in the area are small, family-run placer operations. They are like the mines seen on on the Reality TV show "Gold Rush: Alaska." They search for gold by digging up ground and running it through a sluice box, using water to wash away the rocks and leave the valuable gold behind.
The water they use must be allowed to settle in ponds before it's discharged back into streams or creeks, so that mud and rocks don't pollute clean, nearby waterways. Water turned turbid (cloudy or muddy) can kill fish.
Likins said the task force may have found one possible clean water violation at a mine near Boundary, very close to the Canadian border.
Likins said he believes the aggressive actions of the task force made their investigation much more dangerous for everyone, including the miners and the agents.
"If it were my mine, and I was sitting on some gold, and people came storming out of the woods, I would probably meet them on the porch, with my shotgun," he said.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com