Machinery is rumbling in parts of Wisconsin's Penokee Hills as protestors gather nearby.
Gogebic Taconite is drilling holes so it can extract bedrock. Those samples will help the company determine how it could mine iron ore. While workers and rigs dig, demonstrations have started. Recently, some protestors hiked in the moonlight to view the drilling locations.
“I think we’re going to get a hike out there every weekend,” Pete Rasmussen says.
Rasmussen is with the Penokee Hills Education Project. He says it’s committed to informing people about the ecological importance of the area through peaceful means.
“We’re going to try and get other people to organize their own hikes. You know, there’re musicians who want to get out there. We’re going to try to keep people in those hills and watch what’s going on,” Rasmussen says.
He says people from across the state have been visiting the site near Ashland. One popular vista is a ridge overlooking the potential mine.It’s projected to be four miles long, a half-mile wide and 1,000 feet deep.
Some fear an environmental disaster; others crave the jobs.
In one recent instance, the company summoned police, when individuals took an employee’s camera and cell phone.A Stevens Point woman has been charged with robbery in the case.
Bob Seitz is spokesman for Gogebic Taconite. He says it has hired security personnel since demonstrations began.
“I’d rather not talk about what we’re doing on security because the protestors don’t tell us what their plans are. So I’m not going to say what our security arrangements are. But, we work very hard to make sure the site is as safe as we can make it,” Seitz says.
He says the company respects peaceful protests, but attacks on workers are “out of bounds.” Local law enforcement patrols demonstrations.
This isn’t the first time mining efforts in Wisconsin have attracted protestors. George Meyer was DNR secretary in the early ‘90s when people rallied against a copper mine in Crandon. They feared the process would contaminate the ground water with sulfuric acid. Meyer says the demonstrations continued for years.
“It surely did have a major impact in turning the public against the mine,” Meyer recalls.
However, Meyer says, in the end it was not the "court of public opinion” that defeated the mine.
“I can tell you, I was in that position, ultimately, federal agencies and state agencies cannot legally make a decision based on popularity,” Meyer says.
Meyer says regulatory bodies such as the
DNR and Army Corps of Engineers must make decisions based on scientific findings and the law. Today, Meyer works for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. He plans to take its board members on a hike to the iron ore site later this summer.