Two Republican senators are asking for answers following an armed Environmental Protection Agency inspection of an Alaskan gold mine in August.
Sens. David Vitter (R., La.) and John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) released a letter Wednesday calling on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to explain the circumstances of the inspection, which has rankled Alaskan politicians and residents already distrustful of the nation’s top environmental enforcer.
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"According to several news outlets, EPA agents needlessly intimidated miners last month near Chicken while investigating supposed Clean Water Act (CWA) violations, going so far as to wear full body armor and carry guns in confronting the surprised miners," the senators wrote.
The Alaska Dispatch reported that armed law enforcement officials suddenly appeared at a remote gold mine deep in the interior of the state to inspect for compliance with the CWA.
The Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force—which includes agents from the EPA, FBI, Coast Guard, Department of Defense, and Alaska Department of Public Safety—conducted the operation.
"These heavy-handed tactics appear to have been wholly unnecessary, and we therefore request that you immediately accommodate Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell's call for you to review and evaluate how EPA handles CWA violations," the senators continued.
Republican Gov. Parnell has ordered an investigation into the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Crimes Unit and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigations Division. The Alaskan congressional delegation is also demanding answers.
The EPA disputes critics’ version of the narrative and said the operation was not a "raid" but rather an inspection of a mine that has a history of violations.
"The investigation was targeted to known violations and operators with histories of violations," the agency said in a statement. "All interviews and discussions were consensual and cordial. 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."
EPA also said its law enforcement officers, like other federal law enforcement, are required to carry firearms to safely and effectively perform their responsibilities.
"Environmental law enforcement, like other forms of law enforcement, always involves the potential for physical, even armed, confrontation," the agency said.
However, Vitter and Barrasso wrote that the tactics were only adding to distrust between the agency and industry.
"Indeed, there is growing concern throughout the country that EPA is more interested in shutting down natural resource industries than it is in faithfully executing federal environmental statutes," Vitter and Barrasso wrote. "Such an approach to commerce is antithetical to job creation and our national security. Confidence in EPA as a dispassionate federal agency can only be restored through swift and effective responses to egregious actions."