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Controversial 'Chicken Raids' create overreaching political gold for Parnell

Dermot Cole
The EPA traveled to Chicken, Alaska, in September to answer the questions of unhappy miners in the area about the so-called "Chicken Raid." Loren Holmes photo

FAIRBANKS -- The Parnell administration should not be spending $250 an hour on a private attorney and $150 an hour on an investigator to decide if the so-called “Chicken Raids” should have been handled differently.

The state could have prepared a simple in-house report instead of allocating up to $50,000 for an external review.

Based on the skimpy evidence given Congress in a one-sided House hearing aimed at the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month, the federal agents who took water samples at Alaska mines in August may be guilty of  bad manners, but nothing more. Consequently, the incident does not rise to the level of past actions that actually warranted a state special counsel -- such as the illegal activities of former Veco chief Bill Allen and the legislators who went to jail for political corruption.

Because of state underreach, no special counsel ever looked at that series of unfortunate events to see what additional information remains to be uncovered.

Even at this late date, the $50,000 would be better spent on that topic, instead of harrumphing about the horrors of federal overreach, with the Chicken Raids as the latest example.

It seems the seven enforcement agents should have been savvier about community relations when they visited 30 placer mines in August in the Fortymile, monitoring their compliance with water quality rules. The agents knew in advance they would never win a popularity contest in Chicken, representing the federal government while wearing body armor and jackets that identified them as police.

And they could have done nothing about the miners’ biggest gripe, the belief that government rules established by state and federal agencies about water quality are too strict. That's the underlying issue. But if it is true that the armed enforcement agents acted “mostly without the courtesy of introducing themselves,” as the president of the Fortymile Miners Association testified to Congress, that was a mistake.

Sheldon Maier, the president of the association, said that when armed BLM or state regulators visited in the past, they had always been polite. “Yes, they come armed because of the environment we live in.  But they’ll come out and introduce themselves, they find us. They know us by name. We know who they are.  They do their inspections,” he said.

“If we’re doing something wrong, they say, ‘Hey, you guys should straighten this out.’ Normally we have no problems at all,” he said.

Maier mentioned three specific mines at which the agents did not introduce themselves and the miners had to “initiate dialog” with the government officials who had started taking water samples. To call that excessive force or intimidation is an overreach.

Anywhere else in the world, someone would have captured some of this on a smartphone and posted it on YouTube, but we don’t need to spend $50,000 to decide that introductions and explanations would have helped. We need Miss Manners.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.