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Gold miners in remote Alaska town want answers after task force storms in

  • A 2006 photograph depicts downtown Chicken, Alaska, a gold mining town home to just 17 full-time residents and dozens of seasonal workers.

  • The Pebble Partnership believes a mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska, could produce up to 107.4 million ounces of gold. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, has said in a draft assessment that the project could have "adverse impacts on the productivity and sustainability" of the salmon fishery in the watershed. (AP)

  • Using exploration drill rigs, The Pebble Partnership is currently analyzing what may be the largest undeveloped copper deposit in North America, located in southwest Alaska. (Courtesy: Pebble Partnership)

  • Over decades, The Pebble Partnership believes the deposit has the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum. (Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd.)

  • July 13, 2011: T.J. Gall untangles a red salmon from his dipnet at the Kenai River’s mouth in Kenai, Alaska.AP

Some miners in Alaska want the feds to start digging for answers.

A task force including members of 10 state and federal law enforcement agencies descended on a gold mine in the tiny town of Chicken (pop. 17) last month, in what locals described as a raid.

“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,” gold miner C.R. Hammond told the Alaska Dispatch. “How would you have felt? You would be wondering, ‘My God, what have I done now?”

“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."

- C.R. Hammond, gold miner

A spokesman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not deny that agents wore body armor and carried guns, but said it was not a "raid."

"The ongoing investigation conducted by the AK Environmental Crimes Task Force -- consisting of EPA, ADEC, USFWS, ADFG, BLM, Coast Guard, FBI, Alaska State Troopers, NOAA, & US Park Service -- did not result in a raid," the statement read. "The Task Force members involved in the investigation during the week of August 19, 2013, were EPA's Criminal Investigation Division & Bureau of Land Management's Office of Law Enforcement & Security, in cooperation with ADEC's Environmental Crimes Unit."

The investigation was into possible violations of the Clean Water Act, according to the EPA. The officers were part of the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force and visited the outpost near the Canadian border during the third week of August to investigate water discharges into rivers, streams, lakes and oceans.

Late Thursday, Alaska Gov.Sean Parnell announced he had ordered an investigation into the incident, adding, "this level of intrusion and intimidation of Alaskans is absolutely unacceptable."

EPA law enforcement officers, according to the statement, are not only authorized but required to carry firearms to safely and effectively perform their jobs.

"This may include the arrest of offenders and the protection of public safety," the statement continued. "Environmental law enforcement, like other forms of law enforcement, always involves the potential for physical, even armed, confrontation."

The investigation was launched based on sites with a regulatory history of non-compliance with the Clean Water Act and ongoing significant discharges which could be considered felony violations of the legislation.

"All interviews and discussions were consensual and cordial," the statement concluded. "The investigations took place on state and federal lands, not private property. No homes were entered. There weren’t any confrontations or incidents of using force throughout this particular law enforcement operation. Violations were found, no arrests were made, but the investigation of these and possibly other violations continues."

Several local lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, have inquired about the incident, but EPA officials have thus far “refused to publicly explain” why it utilized the armed officers during the operation, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

Calls seeking comment from Murkowski and Begich were not immediately returned.

The raid, according to one Senate staffer close to the matter, was conducted as such because of information received from the Alaska State Troopers about rampant “drug and human trafficking” in the area, the Alaska Dispatch reports.

That purported explanation was seemingly debunked by a spokeswoman for the law enforcement agency who told the newspaper that it did not advise EPA officials to conduct the raid, adding that no evidence exists to believe those crimes are occurring. Calls seeking additional comment from the Alaska State Troopers were not returned early Friday.

“Their explanation — that there are concerns with the area of rampant drug trafficking and human trafficking going on — sounds wholly concocted to me,” Murkowski told the newspaper. “This seems to have been a heavy-handed and heavy-armor approach. Why was it so confrontational? The EPA really didn’t have any good answers for this.”

Meanwhile, across the state in southwest Alaska, EPA officials have been entrenched in an ongoing dialogue with locals regarding the proposed Pebble Mine, which may contain more than $500 billion in gold, copper and other minerals. But environmentalists claim the project near the headwaters of Bristol Bay would decimate the region that produces half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon population.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who was confirmed to head the agency in July, toured the mine site with Pebble officials late last month and addressed locals who overwhelmingly oppose the massive project. A study released by the agency in April said the mine could destroy 100 miles of stream and 4,800 acres of pristine wetlands.

“EPA is going to make our decision based on what our legal authority is — no overstretches — and on what the science says and real data,” McCarthy told the Alaska Daily News. “I am not here to count votes. I am here to listen.”