By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Gogebic Taconite, LLC can tell you about the cost of doing business in Wisconsin.
The mining company, which has spent more than $350,000 lobbying legislators to ease the state’s mining regulations, recently hired private security guards to patrol the northern Wisconsin site where it hopes to build a projected $1.5 billion iron ore mine.
That added cost of doing business seems to be just what anti-industrialization, environmental group Earth First! intended.
“Making the preliminary stages of this mine as expensive as possible to send a clear message to financiers that this is an extremely risky investment is one strategy that was being pursued in the following action,” a blogger writing under the name “some wild coyotes” wrote on the Earth First! news site.
The blog recounted 15 protesters wearing bandanas for masks, building barricades to block police response to a planned protest. The blogger wrote that protesters 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 and personal cigarettes were raided out of one of the company vehicles as workers and the manager stood in awe.”
Welcome to Wisconsin, where court rulings and legislation have taken the backseat to, at times, violent political demonstrations led by protesters who insist “this is what democracy looks like.”
GTAC, as the mining company is known, brought in security guards weeks after the June 11 protest that ended with the arrest of Katie Kloth, or Krow, as she’s referred to on anti-mining websites. Kloth is accused of taking a geologist’s cell phone and camera. She faces a felony charge of robbery with the use of force and misdemeanor charges of theft and two counts of criminal damage to property.
The group aimed to hit GTAC where it hurts: the company pocketbook.
“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,” the blogger wrote.
“Another outcome of the protest is that Gogebic Taconite will be forced to hire private security for the company contracted to do exploratory drilling in the Penokee Range …. May the costs continue to be imposed and may the security guards and mining managers cower in fear.”
The environmental group, labeled eco-terrorists by the FBI, supporters of the mine project and defenders of private property rights, got its wish — in the form of mercenary soldiers dressed in camouflage gear and carrying machine guns.
Meanwhile, Iron County’s deputies worked overtime to monitor the June 11 protests. GTAC picked up that tab, according to the Iron County Sheriff’s Office. Wisconsin Reporter has submitted an open records request for those costs.
Perhaps adding insult to injury, lawmakers who opposed the new mining regulations publicly called on GTAC CEO Bill Williams to reconsider his strategy to protect the company’s private property.
“These kinds of security forces are common in third world countries but they don’t belong in Northern Wisconsin,” Sen. Bob Jauch, D -Poplar, and Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, wrote in a letter to Williams on Monday.
Jauch and Bewley asked Williams to “immediately remove the heavily armed masked commando security forces” hired to protect GTAC property.
Scott Manley, a lobbyist at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, said the lawmakers “shouldn’t insert themselves into that level of business decision making” and wonders why they weren’t as vocal in condemning the violent protests.
“If Wisconsin gains the unfortunate reputation that your economic activity is going to be disrupted by radicalists, that will absolutely impact investment decisions in a negative way,” Manley said. “The disruptive activities of what I think could be called eco-terrorists, they’re purposely trying to disrupt pre-permitting work and that definitely gives us a black eye. If it becomes pervasive it would become a factor for businesses.”
Manley contends it’s not unusual for a business to hire security and that patrolling acres of woods differs vastly from guarding a front door at a hospital or manufacturing plant.
Among Northwoods residents, most of the attention seems to have been generated through anti-mining environmentalist bloggers and media coverage, a tactic promoted at a recent workshop by Central Wisconsin Action Camp, another environmental activist group that aims to block the mine.
Iron County Sheriff Tony Furyk told Wisconsin Reporter he hasn’t received any complaints from residents about the armed, masked men.
“A lot of the situation seems to be lacking a sense of fairness,” said Leslie Kolesar, an Iron County board member. “GTAC has a right to protect their company. It’s the prudent thing to do.”
She said the county maintains a positive working relationship with the mining company as the board continues to draft a local zoning ordinance for mining. It recently sent an initial proposal back to committee for more work.
“We expect people to sue from any angle they can get at. We need to make sure our processes and ordinances are air tight,” she said.
The Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. announced in March the tribe had established a legal defense fund for future litigation. The tribe has ceded territory north of the potential mine site and can set its own water quality standards that can limit the pollution of their rivers and streams from sources outside the reservation.
Neighboring Ashland County recently approved an ordinance that requires a mining company to obtain a special-use permit. The ordinance requires the company to pay $100,000 to the county for an administrative fee fund, with potential future payments if the balance in the fund drops below $50,000.
Bob Seitz, a spokesman for GTAC, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Ashland County passed “an open checkbook” and that the ordinance, as passed, was “unnecessary and maybe impossible to meet.”
Seitz did not return several calls from Wisconsin Reporter.
Kolesar says Iron County would avoid some of the more burdensome language in Ashland County’s ordinance. Ultimately, though, she hopes representatives from the two counties and the towns of Anderson and Morse can come to an agreement in the Joint Mining Impact Committee that would supersede local ordinance.
“You can’t fault the counties for looking for money somewhere,” she said. “Iron County’s entire budget is under $11 million. One of our other problems is we can’t get to the money in the (state) Mining Investment and Local Impact Fund because there’s no committee. We have to worry about legal expenses and we don’t really have any resources without that fund.”
The stated purpose of the fund is “to distribute moneys from the Mining Fund to local units of government to defray socioeconomic and environmental costs of metallic mineral mining.”
At the end of 2012, the fund had a balance of $205,000 according to the state Department of Revenue.
However, new appointments have not been made to that board. Officials from the Department of Administration and the Department of Revenue did not immediately respond to requests for information in regard to reorganizing the board.
GTAC is required to make three $75,000 payments to the Mining fund, which is supposed to offset costs to the local governmental units. The first was supposed to be made after the company filed a notice of intent in June.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]