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Senate demands answers on EPA’s armed raid of Alaskan gold mine

Republican senators are demanding answers from the Environmental Protection Agency after agency officials participated in an armed raid of gold mines near Chicken, Alaska.

According to reports, in late August agents of the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force swarmed the mine in groups of four to eight and even went so far as to wear body armor and carry guns while investigating a supposed violation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. No arrests were made in the raid and no citations were issued.

“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,” gold miner C.R. “Dick” Hammond told the Alaska Dispatch.

“These heavy-handed tactics appear to have been wholly unnecessary,” wrote Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and John Barrasso of Wyoming in a letter to the EPA, “and we therefore request that you immediately accommodate Alaska Governor Sean Parnell’s call for you to review and evaluate how EPA handles [Clean Water Act] violations.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation and the state’s governor have also demanded to know why  the EPA decided to send armed officers for a water pollution permit inspection.

The EPA said the investigation was launched based on sites with a history of violating the CWA, but the agency refused to publicly explain to why it opted to use fully armed officers for its “multi-jurisdictional” investigation at the mine. On a conference call held in late August, a staffer for an Alaskan senator said that the EPA sent in armed men because it had been given information by Alaska State Troopers regarding “rampant drug and human trafficking going on in the area.”

That explanation was debunked by a spokeswoman for the state troopers, who said they did not advise the EPA to raid the mine and that there was no evidence of drug and human trafficking occurring.

“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 state police spokesperson Megan Peters.

The EPA also refused to call the use of armed officers to inspect a mine a “raid.”

“The ongoing investigation conducted by the AK Environmental Crimes Task Force — consisting of EPA, ADEC, USFWS, ADFG, BLM, Coast Guard, FBI, Alaska State Troopers, NOAA, & US Park Service — did not result in a raid,” the EPA said in a statement.

Gov. Sean Parnell ordered an investigation into the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Crimes Unit and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigations Division after learning of the raid. The governor also asked the EPA to review and reevaluate how the agency goes about investigating Clean Water Act violations.

“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 DEC investigator took it upon themselves to swoop in on unsuspecting miners in remote Alaska,” said Parnell.

According to the EPA, agency law enforcement officers are required to carry firearms to perform their duties.

“This may include the arrest of offenders and the protection of public safety,” said the EPA in a statement. “Environmental law enforcement, like other forms of law enforcement, always involves the potential for physical, even armed, confrontation.”

This raid also comes at a time of strained relations between miners and federal agencies as the EPA is attempting to preemptively veto the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska by denying it a water pollution permit before any plans for the mine have been put forward.

“Indeed, there is growing concern throughout the country that EPA is more interested in shutting down natural resource industries than it is in faithfully executing federal environmental statutes,” wrote Vitter and Barrasso. “Such an approach to commerce is antithetical to job creation and our national security. Confidence in EPA as a dispassionate federal agency can only be restored through swift and effective responses to egregious actions.”

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