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Fortymile miners bristle at 'intimidating' federal tactics

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Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 12:26 pm, Thu Sep 5, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Some miners in the Fortymile mining district are angry about a series of field investigations of the area last month, saying the presence of armed federal officers was an intimidating and unnecessary intrusion.

The operation occurred about two weeks ago at claims in the area around Chicken. Sheldon Maier, president of the Fortymile Mining Association, said armed Environmental Protection Agency officials visited numerous placer mining sites while investigating Clean Water Act violations.

Maier said the appearance of the officials — arriving suddenly in armed groups while wearing bulletproof vests — was startling. Miners said the visits felt like a bullying tactic.

“The miners I’ve visited with said it was very intimidating and uncomfortable,” Maier said.

The account differed from that offered by an EPA spokesman, who stated in an email that the discussions officials had with miners in the area were “consensual and cordial.”

The EPA statement said the operation was conducted by the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force, which is comprised of 10 state and federal agencies. The enforcement wings of the EPA, Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation participated in the effort, the statement said.

The agencies “took on this investigation based on sites with a regulatory history of non-compliance with the state and federal clean water laws and ongoing significant discharges — possibly felony violations of state and federal clean water laws.”

The statement said violations were found during the inspection of 30 mining sites, but that investigations are ongoing. No arrests were made at the sites, which include state and federal lands.

Complaints about the investigation, however, made their way to the Alaska congressional delegation, whose members met with EPA officials last Thursday to discuss it.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said there were few answers offered at the briefing, but that the explanations her staff got seemed far-fetched. One official said extra caution was needed because the sparsely populated area is rife with drug and human trafficking, she said.

Murkowski said she agrees with the need to enforce the Clean Water Act, but said the investigation feels like another example of confrontational federal behavior toward rural Alaskans. She intends to schedule a follow-up meeting with EPA officials to discuss the operation.

“I haven’t heard anything that would lead me to believe this was appropriate,” she said.

Maier said he was particularly disappointed that the state participated in the operation, since fighting federal overreach has been a theme of Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration. But various state agencies said they had little or no role in the operation.

An Alaska Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman said agency officials were only made aware of the operation after it had concluded. Alaska State Troopers’ participation was limited to loaning a four-wheeler, and no personnel were on site, spokeswoman Megan Peters said.

DEC had a field officer present during the operation to look for state violations, but the operation was led by federal officials, spokesman Ty Keltner said.

Keltner said DEC is reviewing complaints that have been made about how the investigation was conducted.

Maier said it’s become increasingly difficult to work as a miner in the area. He said unrealistic water-quality standards and trail access disputes create ongoing struggles, and that operations like last month’s feel like an attack against the remaining miners.

Maier said he hopes to arrange a Sept. 14 meeting in Chicken between miners, state agencies and EPA officials to discuss the incident.

“In our view, it’s an all-out assault to finish this industry off,” he said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness

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