Report: EPA mining raid overblown, but questions remain

Tactics used in an Environmental Protection Agency-led investigation of alleged mining violations on claims in the Fortymile River area likely weren’t as aggressive as first thought, at least according to a report released March 13 from Gov. Sean Parnell’s office, but questions still remain about the necessity of the searches.

The 37-page “Report of 2013 Fortymile Mining District Investigation” found that task force members “acted appropriately while conducting the criminal compliance investigation” and broke no laws during nine visits paid to miners from Aug. 19-22.

Anchorage attorney Brent Cole led the inquiry and signed the report.

The report concludes there is a strong need for better communication between state and federal agencies to prevent similar controversies in the future. It’s unlikely that the heads of the state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Game or Environment Conservation were aware of the investigation ahead of time, the report states.

Initial reports of the investigation claimed some of the placer miners were confronted and intimidated by EPA and Bureau of Land Management enforcement officers that used “SWAT-type tactics” as characterized in September by the Alaska Miners Association in a formal statement.

Even senators from Outside, Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and David Vitter, R-La., wrote a letter to EPA Administrator in early September questioning the “armed raid” as they called it.

EPA officials said at the time the investigation was looking for suspected Clean Water Act violations at a number of the small, primarily placer gold mines. According to the governor’s report there were 58 active placer operations and 19 suction dredgers in the area near Chicken, not far from the Canadian border.

Violating the Clean Water Act with criminal negligence can lead to misdemeanor convictions and fines up to $25,000 per day for a first offense and $50,000 per day for a second infraction, the report states.

No fines or charges have been levied against miners as a result of the investigation to date.

During the state’s inquiry more than 50 witnesses and further attorneys, prosecutors, miners and state and federal regulators and law enforcement personnel were interviewed.

“Longtime miners in the area recall little if any contact by EPA personnel: criminal or civil,” the report reads.

The story leading up to the investigation goes back to nearly a year before the encounters in question went down. According to the administration’s report, a Fairbanks-based BLM ranger approached the Alaska State Trooper Intelligence Division on Sept. 12, 2012, claiming he saw suspicious activity while traveling along the Taylor Highway near the Canadian border. The report states: “The BLM ranger described seeing a group of individuals with prison tattoos who were heavily armed and who were not working. He identified some as having criminal histories, including bank robbery. He also described a veiled threat made to him.”

Additionally, the ranger said he believed some individuals could be conducting drug or human trafficking operations across the border.

In mid-February 2013 two troopers met with two EPA officers and learned of EPA’s intent to conduct criminal investigations in the Fortymile area. It was agreed that the agencies would keep each other informed of their respective plans.

When an Alaska Intelligence Trooper traveled the area between Tok and Eagle with the BLM ranger, the trooper was unable to corroborate the ranger’s claims and expressed disappointment that the claims could not be substantiated, according to the report.

In a post-investigation conference call with Alaska’s congressional delegation EPA officials said they decided to send armed and armored officers on the investigation based on Alaska State Trooper reports of “rampant drug and human trafficking going on in the area.”

Parnell alluded to this discrepancy in stories in a formal statement released with the report.

“The notion of armed federal agents showing up unannounced to ‘investigate’ hard working Alaska mining families disturbs me. The question remains, why was a criminal investigation called for in the first place?” Parnell said.

The governor also sent a letter dated March 13 to House Natural Resources Committee chair Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., asking the congressman to demand documents from EPA not made available during the state’s inquiry.

“I am disappointed, but not surprised that the special counsel was met with resistance in attempting to access documents and witnesses pertinent to his review,” Parnell said in his format statement.

Parnell requested an amendment to the Clean Water Act that would give states authority to manage compliance an enforcement of the federal regulation on state and private land.

Rep. Don Young commended the report and Parnell for following up with an investigation of his own in a formal statement. The congressman continued to refer to “heavy-handed” and “intimidation” tactics used by the EPA after the report was released.

Alaska Wildlife Troopers declined to participate in the investigation because those asked felt it was beyond their jurisdiction, but offered to lend the EPA officers the use of state all-terrain vehicles.

One state Environmental Compliance Unit officer ultimately accompanied three Alaska EPA investigators, three Alaska BLM agents and three other federal agents in the investigation.

According to the report, heavy rains in the area on Aug. 13-14 could have caused natural turbidity in rivers and streams and might have distorted what investigators found.

Based on recordings taken by the state officer it does not appear that the “task force members engaged in any overbearing or improper investigation tactics.”

Outside of the interviews the investigation primarily consisted of taking photos, water samples, and checking paperwork, the report states.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

03/19/2014 - 12:39pm