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Report finds no laws broken in mine investigation

Posted: March 14, 2014 - 12:09am

JUNEAU — The special counsel hired by the state to look into mining investigations conducted last year by federal and state authorities in eastern Alaska found no evidence that investigators broke any laws.

In the report, attorney Brent Cole said task force members — including nine federal agents or investigators and one officer with the state Department of Environmental Conservation — acted appropriately while carrying out their investigation. In reviewing on-site conversations with placer miners taped by the state officer, none of the miners appeared to have been intimidated, though some indicated surprise at how the matter was handled, Cole said. The conversations reviewed were “cordial and friendly,” he said.

But Cole questioned the need for a criminal investigation rather than a civil or administrative inquiry, calling it “ill-conceived” and saying it introduced “an unnecessary element of risk” into the process.

“Little if any” civil enforcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of Environmental Conservation had occurred in the so-called Fortymile area between Eagle and Tok in years past, he said.

“There was no evidence that civil enforcement measures would not have brought about compliance. Nor was there evidence of ‘serious and knowing’ violations ongoing in the Fortymile area,” the report says. “Under the facts provided to us, we were unable to conclude that a criminal compliance inspection was necessary here.”

Cole also found poor levels of communication between federal and state agencies. Gov. Sean Parnell on Wednesday wrote his attorney general and commissioners of Natural Resources, Public Safety and Environmental Conservation, laying out rules for possible state involvement in future federal environmental investigations.

Cole also said some state employees interviewed for his report expressed concern with the “effectiveness of state prosecutions of environmental crimes in Alaska.” He suggested that issue be investigated.

The probe into possible violations of the federal Clean Water Act was carried out last August. Parnell called it a “complete overreach” and referred to it as a raid carried out by law enforcement wearing body armor and carrying high-powered rifles.

The governor released the report Thursday, but he told reporters the matter was not settled.

Parnell has asked the chairs of the U.S. House committee on natural resources and subcommittee on energy and mineral resources for help in getting additional information from EPA, noting Congress has such authority over federal agencies.

Parnell also said he anticipates state legislative hearings on the issue.

Cole, in his report, said that while EPA and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management made supervisors available for questioning about the investigation, federal officials did not respond to requests to interview the lead EPA criminal investigator and Bureau of Land Management ranger.

In addition to the supervisors being available, the EPA, in a statement, said the agency and the Bureau of Land Management provided a report on the law enforcement action and other information. EPA said discussing and providing such information is rare during a criminal investigation.

The agency also said that after the field investigations in August, both it and the Bureau of Land Management briefed representatives from Alaska’s congressional delegation and Parnell’s office and met with leaders of the Alaska Mining Association.

In a December report on the investigations, EPA said “serious violations had been repeatedly” observed in the Fortymile Mining District and agencies involved in the investigations believed it likely the violations were ongoing.

The EPA report said investigations continue at eight placer mining sites where “potentially illegal discharges were found.” A discharge investigation stemming from a suction dredge was closed when the matter was found to be in compliance.

The EPA also disputed the characterization of the action as a raid, saying investigators involved wore “civilian rough-duty field clothing,” including jeans and hip waders, and wore bullet-proof vests identifying them as law enforcement. Investigators carried side arms and were either assigned a shotgun or semi-automatic rifle, which EPA said was broken down and carried in a backpack until the last day, when it was carried on a sling.

The agency, in an emailed statement in response to the Cole report, said EPA and its partners “enforce the law to protect local communities and important fisheries from serious water pollution violations, and to protect those miners that comply with the law.”

___

Online:

Cole report: http://1.usa.gov/1fC7ZfF

Parnell letter to commissioners: http://1.usa.gov/1cDvV2x

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