The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Cops arbitrarily raid Fortymile placers

Courting disaster, teams of frightened, armed and ill-prepared EPA crimes-unit officers storm remote Alaska mining operations

In August, according to all indications, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Crimes Task Force conducted a series of raids on placer mining operations along the Fortymile River under extremely unusual and questionable circumstances. Despite the reticence of the agency to be forthcoming, these actions bear all the earmarks of an abuse of discretion by the Agency and beg for public scrutiny.

The undisputed facts indicate that sworn EPA officers appeared fully decked-out with sidearms and bulletproof vests boldly labeled "POLICE" at several working operations without notice, proceeded directly to the working area, and gathered water samples.

According to the reports, when doing so, the officers made no effort to initiate communications with the operator, even after arriving at the site.

When questioned, the officers seemed unclear as to their purpose.

No citations were issued at the scene of these raids.

Insofar as has been disclosed to date, no significant or serious violations were enjoined.

Apparently, perhaps with minor exceptions, the operators were free to proceed with their operations without change, following the incursions.

It is important to distinguish here between regulators and enforcers.

Placer miners, as well as virtually everyone else engaged in earth-moving activities, are well-acquainted with a variety of regulators.

Essentially, the official visits of these personnel are of the milk and cookies variety.

Most operators understand and agree that compliance with reasonable water-quality regulations, just as compliance with reasonable health and safety regulations and a lengthy cascade of other regulations, is an appropriate cost of doing business.

If there are allegations of non-compliance, the conclusions may be contested, but that process advances through the well-worn administrative channels, and generally results in early detection and some level of settlement.

Enforcers, on the other hand, are not regulators. Their duty is to stop crimes and support the imposition of penal sanctions such as fines or imprisonment or both and in this instance there was no mistaking their objective. Curiously, there was little obvious justification for the Fortymile forays. Sworn officers representing the agencies who oversee mining operations on an ongoing basis, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, were briefed on the investigation only after the mission had been fully crafted. They were literally observers.

Consistent reports from the affected locations indicated that the enforcement officers on the ground were apparently fearful; and, when asked, were unclear as to whether they were investigating violations of section 402 of the Clean Water Act, which requires an EPA/DEC approval, or section 404 of that act which is within the purview of the Army Corps of Engineers. There is no indication that the Corps supported or participated in the invasions.

We have the deepest respect for the brave men and women who, at great personal risk, undertake to enforce our criminal laws. On a daily basis, they voluntarily expose themselves to all manner of danger, while protecting the domestic tranquility. The reputation they enjoy is justified because of the sound discretion they exercise. When an event such as the Fortymile raids occurs, it besmirches the integrity not just of those who were involved, but also of the tens of thousands of other sworn officers of whatever stripe who depend upon public support and approval in executing their mission.

There can be no doubt that, intentionally or not, these raids inspired terror in the hearts of the operators who found themselves involuntary hosts to their surprise visitors.

Clearly, the criminal investigators were specifically warned that what they were about to do would result in a strong, adverse public reaction.

Since the raids, the EPA has repeatedly been invited to explain itself, and has done everything it can to evade the called-for transparency.

The time has come for the Environmental Crimes Unit to lay down its defenses and in no uncertain terms disclose what it was looking for and why they chose these law-abiding operations to look for it.

There is no need for redactions and rationalizations; instead, there is a need for oversight and accountability.

In a world where the lies and equivocations of those charged with our national security are the daily fodder of ambitious journalists, it ill-behooves the EPA to cower in the darkness of disingenuous evasion. Alaskans and all Americans are entitled to have those who enforce the Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes, publicly demonstrate that they also have clean hands.


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