by Lee Bergsquist / the Journal Sentinel
Two separate protests this week over a proposed iron mine in northern Wisconsin are changing the complexion of the massive project as debate over mining shifts from a legislative fight to boots-on-the-ground activism that a mine spokesman called “eco-terrorism.'”
A group opposed to Gogebic Taconite’s $1.5 billion open pit mine is planning an organized walk on Saturday into a heavily wooded area of Iron County that was the site of protests and vandalism earlier tis week linked to construction of the proposed mine.
A 3-mile hike into hilly terrain is being touted by organizers as non-violent and an opportunity for the public to see how exploratory drilling “impacts a pristine landscape,” according to statement issued by the Penokee Hills Education Project.
But Gogebic’s spokesman Bob Seitz said the company is worried that this week’s vandalism could spark more trouble, once the group begins walking through an area with drilling rigs and other equipment.
With heads covered, protesters on Tuesday escalated tensions in a confrontation with Gogebic crews.
Iron County Sheriff Tony Furyk on Friday estimated damage at about $2,000 after protesters slashed tires, damaged equipment, destroyed a worker’s camera and took away her cell phone.
In a posting on Earth First! Newswire on Friday, an unidentified person wrote:
“…folks took the space over for about an hour. They jumped on trucks and the collection tank and threw pieces of equipment like pickaxes, fire extinguishers, and shovels down the hillside into the thick of the woods. Fences were knocked over and broken…
“We disappeared into the woods and were able to outwit and outrun sheriff deputies on ATVs because we know the terrain better than they do. We were able to inflict damages upon the company in the form of an entire day of labor costs through the disturbance and subsequent police reports that their workers had to spend their shift doing, as well as shatter their sense of security.”
Seitz said, “This is eco-terrorism. There is no doubt it is eco-terrorism when your head is wrapped like al-Qaida and people are yelling things at people and threatening them.”
Also, on Monday a group of protesters briefly occupied the Department of Natural Resources service center in Wausau, yelled profanities and nailed a banner to the roof stating opposition to the mine.
They tried to make their way into non-public areas of the building but were stopped. No arrests were made, according to the DNR. But one day later in a memo to the entire agency, Deputy DNR Secretary Matt Moroney said the department is working with law enforcement agencies to develop an “action plan for managing mining protest incidents.”
Furyk said his department expected to file charges early next week for theft and damage to property. He said deputies have identified those believed to be responsible.
Charges are also being contemplated in connection with an altercation between a female geologist working for Gogebic and a man and woman who struggled with her when she tried to film the protesters, Furyk said. According to the geologist, the pair took her cellphone, he said.
Iron County District Attorney Marty Lipske said Friday he is reviewing the geologist’s statements and waiting for the police report before he decides whether to issue charges. Seitz said the geologist was scratched during the incident.
Frank Koehn, an organizer with the Penokee Hills Education Project, said his group’s walk Saturday will follow the law and is not intended as a protest. “We don’t want a lot of screaming or hollering — we just won’t have that,” he said.
Nonetheless, Seitz says Gogebic questions whether the public has the right to access the property if their presence is intended as a protest.
Gogebic has an option on the mineral rights of the land, which is regulated under the state’s managed forest law. In exchange for sharply lower property taxes, the public access is allowed for activities, such as hiking and hunting.
So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the vandalism.
Koehn said he does not know who was involved. “Unfortunately, it may be the exuberance of youth, whatever, but as far as we are concerned it’s over,” he said.
Thistle Pettersen, a folk singer from Madison who participated in non-violent protest training last month in the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest, said she also doesn’t know who the protesters were.
“We were not trained in property destruction,” Pettersen said. “But passions run deep and who knows who is going to come out of the woodwork in such a situation.”
Gogebic’s mine would span 4 miles and operate in Iron and Ashland counties.
Earlier this year, the Legislature agreed to most changes the company demanded as a precondition to spending millions of dollars on a state and federal permit process.
The mine would operate for at least 35 years. Gogebic has said the project would generate 700 jobs, and all told would create more than 2,800 jobs in trucking, housing and other industries.
Opponents have questioned the jobs claim and say they believe legislation that relaxed some environmental regulations will result in the mine harming the Bad River watershed.
The river flows north from the area of the proposed mine into Lake Superior.