FAIRBANKS — Two hours with Fortymile country miners persuaded Gov. Sean Parnell that federal environmental officers last month were overly aggressive in investigating possible clean water violations.
Environmental Protection Agency agents clearly used excessive force on mom and pop placer miners, Parnell told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in an interview Saturday.
“Anywhere from four to seven agents in body armor and with high-powered weapons swooping in on ATVs,” Parnell said. “They don’t stop to introduce themselves, they just blow by a miner and his wife and head straight for the water and start taking samples.”
Parnell two weeks ago ordered an investigation after learning that state employees had participated in the August investigations.
The EPA led the visits to look for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. They had been planned for months, according to the agency, and were conducted by the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force, made up of 10 federal and state agencies.
Miners contend the visits by armed government representatives were intimidating and uncomfortable.
DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig wasn’t aware of the operation until just before it took place, Parnell said. The governor said he’s concerned about what he and miners see as overreach by a federal agency and about how decisions were made in planning the investigation.
Doug Parker, director of the EPA’s criminal investigation division, earlier this month disagreed with the Parnell’s characterization of investigators’ encounters with miners. He said meetings with the miners were cordial and there are ongoing safety concerns.
“I am very comfortable with the approach that the joint state-federal team took,” he said.
The investigation Parnell ordered will be conducted by an outside attorney. He wants it to include suggestions for improvement. Parnell said there was a complete failure of timely and complete information in the DEC and the EPA.
“We want our state people and federal people on these teams to use their heads,” Parnell said. “If we can get some procedures in place I think that would be a good outcome. Thankfully nobody got hurt this time. This had the makings of a real tragedy.”