When agents with the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force surged out of the wilderness around the remote community of Chicken wearing body armor and jackets emblazoned with POLICE in big, bold letters, local placer miners didn't quite know what to think.
Did it really take eight armed men and a squad-size display of paramilitary force to check for dirty water? Some of the miners, who run small businesses, say they felt intimidated.
Others wonder if the actions of the agents put everyone at risk. When your family business involves collecting gold far from nowhere, unusual behavior can be taken as a sign someone might be trying to stage a robbery. How is a remote placer miner to know the people in the jackets saying POLICE really are police?
Miners suggest it might have been better all around if officials had just shown up at the door -- as they used to do -- and said they wanted to check the water.
The EPA has refused to publicly explain why it used armed officers as part of what it called a "multi-jurisdictional" investigation of possible Clean Water Act violations in the area.
A conference call was held last week to address the investigation. On the line were members of the Alaska Congressional delegation, their staff, state officers, and the EPA. According to one Senate staffer, the federal agency said it decided to send in the task force armed and wearing body armor because of information it received from the Alaska State Troopers about "rampant drug and human trafficking going on in the area."
The area is 140 miles from anywhere, and the local law enforcement said:
So the real reason is somebody decided they were bored off their ass, and wouldn't it be fun to go play soldier in the woods with all this cool cop shit we've got.
"The Alaska State Troopers did not advise the EPA that there was dangerous drug activity. We do not have evidence to suggest that is occurring," said Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters.