Sheldon Maier, the president of the Fortymile Mining Association, and miner Linda Kile described their experience at a U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. They said the police tactics used in August by an EPA-led task force were unprecedented in the Fortymile Mining District.
The task force was reportedly looking for Clean Water Act violations. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement last month that evidence of violations was found, but it has not provided more details. The agency was not available to comment Thursday because of the federal shutdown.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska and a member of the subcommittee, introduced a bill this week that would strip the agency’s law enforcement authority, putting it in the hands of the FBI.
“The EPA-led task force’s invasion was an unnecessary intrusion into the lives of Alaskan miners, who want simply nothing more than to continue to practice the great Alaskan tradition of placer mining,” Young said in a press release. “The FBI already has the expertise and authority to investigate federal crimes.”
Young is one of several Alaska politicians who’ve criticized the task force’s actions. It’s the latest in a series of struggles between federal law enforcement and rural residents in which state political leaders have sided with rural residents. In his comments in the subcommittee, Young compared the enforcement to the National Park Service rangers who arrested Central resident Jim Wilde in 2010 for not stopping his boat on the Yukon River for a safety inspection.
Also on Thursday, Gov. Sean Parnell named Anchorage lawyer Brent Cole “special counsel” with a mission of investigating conduct of the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force, which included the enforcement wings of the EPA, Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Cole has been asked to prepare a report within 90 days that will evaluate the actions of law enforcement agents to “ascertain if any laws were violated, and determine whether different actions could have been taken,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.
Cole was picked for the job by a competitive bid process and has a budget of as much as $50,000 for his investigation, according to Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow.
At Thursday’s hearing in Washington, Maier testified that between Aug. 13 and Aug. 27, agents in groups of three to seven visited 30 mine sites in the region.
Kile, who has a mine near the Canada border, said in written testimony that this summer’s law enforcement was unlike any she’d seen before. In the past, inspections have never been announced, but in the past inspectors identified themselves and didn’t wear body armor, she said.
In August, she said, an inspection of her mine followed two days in which an aircraft circled her land. Armed inspectors answered questions only by saying the words “Clean Water Act,” she said.
“My husband, son and I were all very confused and upset about the entire encounter. At no time did any of them ever approach us and identify themselves. They presented no documentation to confirm their identities or explain the purpose of their invasion (the word ‘visit’ is too civil a term for this encounter),” Kile said in the testimony.