The small gold mining community of Chicken, Ala. became the center of national controversy when a local newspaper reported the Alaska Environmental Task Force conducted an unexpected investigative attack on a local mine, startling workers and area residents.
Clad in body armor and jackets with the word, “Police,” armed agents stormed the mine, with the intention of monitoring whether the mine management company was complying with the Clean Water Act, which imposes regulations on companies intended to protect the nation’s water sources.
The mine, which employs 17 full-time workers and roughly 12 seasonal employees, told the Alaska Dispatch they were taken off guard when the eight armed officers entered the area. It’s located in the Fortymile Mining District.
“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 Dick Hammond, who works at the Chicken gold mine site.
The situation sparked a frenzy among conservative commentators, who referred to the armed Environmental Crimes Task Force as an example of the Environmental Protection Agency taking things to an unnecessary level. The EPA defended its armed approach, claiming it received a tip from local law enforcement that the area near the Chicken mine was located in the midst of a drug trafficking zone.
Local politicians and residents aren’t buying it, claiming it’s a phony excuse by the EPA to take an over-the-top approach to environmental violations — or crimes, as the EPA sees it.
“This seems to have been a heavy-handed, and heavy-armed approach,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) told the Alaska Dispatch. “Why was it so confrontational? The EPA really didn’t have any good answers for this.”
The armed environmental officers’ raid in Alaska follows outrage from Wisconsin residents, who in July claimed a mining company was taking things too far when it hired armed paramilitary troops to protect the site of a proposed iron ore mine from area residents and environmental activists.
The debate then between environmental activists was the same one being posed by mining advocates throughout the U.S.: Was that really necessary?
While the EPA was monitoring alleged crimes committed by the mining industry that have the potential of creating health issues and damage to the environment, the mining companies were allegedly attempting to halt area residents from damaging property.
What were officers after?
The question posed now is whether the AETF went too far in their quest to discover whether the mine was violating section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which relates to the regulation of toxic discharge.
“Any person who wilfully or negligently violates any condition or limitation in a permit issued by the Secretary under this section shall be punished by a fine of not less than $2,500 nor more than $25,000 per day of violation, or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or by both,” the EPA states under Section 404(4)(a) of the Clean Water Act.
The fine for a second conviction could reach $50,000 per day of violation, or two years in prison — or both. As noted within the Act, “person” could be defined as “any responsible corporate officer.”
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Crimes Unit defines an environmental crime as “an environmental violation for which the State Legislature and/or the U.S. Congress have provided criminal sanctions.”
As noted on the site, violations of environmental crimes, like others, can lead to prison time and criminal fees. As noted on the website, illegal discharge of contaminants into the state’s water sources tops the list as violations deemed to be environmental crimes, as they violate the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
Alaska’s gold mining industry doesn’t have a clean slate when it comes to compliance with the Clean Water Act. In 2012, the EPA fined Alaska Gold Company more than $177,000 for allegedly violating that law at the company’s Rock Creek Mine.
The area was inspected by the state’s Environmental Crimes Unit, which discovered that discharge from the mine was contaminating area water sources.
The team conducted six inspections at the mine between 2009 and 2011, revealing the violations.
Multiple violations were cited throughout the course of the spot investigations, including drainage channels without rock armoring, which led to bank erosion and sloughing of channel walls, according to the press release.
The EPA also noted the company did not create a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan that met standards relating to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System General Permit — a serious problem, considering the area has two tributaries to the Snake River, which feeds into the Bering Sea.
“Polluted runoff can damage important habitat and harm Alaska’s natural resources,” Jeff KenKnight, the EPA’s manager for Clean Water Act compliance in Seattle, Wa., said in a press release. “Companies need to plan for and manage stormwater runoff from their construction sites, and investing the time and energy upfront is always better than repairing damage and paying penalties later.”
Drug trafficking concerns?
Aside from possible discharge from the gold mine, Sean Doogan of the Alaska Dispatch indicated there was a recent conference call among the EPA, Alaska Congressional delegates and staff, along with state officers.
Doogan stated that one Senate staffer indicated the federal agency sent in the armed task force because it received information from local law enforcement that there was “rampant drug and human trafficking” in the area.
“Their explanation — that there are concerns within the area of rampant drug trafficking and human trafficking going on — sounds wholly concocted to me,” Murkowski said.
The Alaska State Troopers denied any tips to the EPA regarding drug activity in the area.
One area miner told the Dispatch that having environmental inspectors at area mines was nothing new, but said the manner in which they conducted themselves was.
“Compliance exams are a normal thing for miners,” David Linkins, a gold miner, told the Dispatch. “Usually the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] or DEC [Department of Conservation] points out a problem and you correct it. This was way over the top and uncalled for. It was a massive show of intimidation.”
Calls made by Mint Press News to the state’s Environmental Crimes Unit regarding the raid were not immediately returned.