For decades, nature lovers have considered Wisconsin’s Penokee Mountains to be one of the best-kept secrets in the Badger State. Rising from the northern edge of the Chequamegon National Forest, the hemlock-covered hills boast incredible avian biodiversity, tremendous views of Lake Superior, and some of the best whitewater fishing around. Geologists believe that the range’s high point, Mount Whittlesey (1,872 feet), once rivaled the tallest peaks in Europe before glacial action whittled it down to a nub. It’s easy to find solitude in the Penokees; many of the trails are so sparsely populated that you’re more likely to see a black bear than you are another person.
Bears, however, will be the least of your worries if you wander too close to the border of the Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC) mining zone. At that point, expect to be greeted by a camouflage-wearing mercenary cradling a semi-automatic rifle.
Since late 2010, these hills have been alive with the sound of protest. That’s when GTAC first announced its plan to build a 4-mile-long iron ore mine in the Penokees, an operation supported by state governor Scott Walker and a majority of the Republican-controlled state legislature. GTAC has secured early exploratory permits and is currently in the initial trial phase of its operation, testing equipment capacity and viability.
Environmental groups and several state legislators vehemently oppose the mining, citing the danger of polluting the local groundwater and some 70 miles of nearby streams that flow through the Bad River/Lake Superior watershed. In February 2012, geologists Jason Huberty and Josepth Skulan testified that the mining permit bill, as written, badly misrepresented two rock-related terms: “ferrous” and “sulfide.” Ferrous, for those who skipped geology class, simply means that a material contains iron in one form or another. It can apply to steel just as easily as it can to various alloys. Sulfide substances, on the other hand, are generally bad news because they are corrosive to most organic material. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. The bill separated the two terms and also discussed their risks separately without ever mentioning that the targeted rock— pyrite, a.k.a. iron sulfide a.k.a. ferrous sulfide — is a combination of the two. In other words, there’s harmful sulfide right alongside the iron ore.
Worse, further research revealed the presence of another particularly toxic mineral: fibrous grunerite, a greenish-brown silicate better known as asbestos. The harmful effects of asbestos are well-engrained in public consciousness by now, but while most of us think of it in the context of the insulation hiding in old houses, the stuff can come out of the ground in much more concentrated form as an airborne carcinogen. Although asbestos poisoning is somewhat rare in mining-related contexts nowadays, it was enough to raise major public health concerns about GTAC’s proposed operation.
GTAC owns mining rights on some 20,000 acres of private land. However, that land is located within a publically managed forest and under current law, GTAC is required to allow public access to wooded private areas for low-impact recreational activities such as hiking and fishing. Thus, the rule has allowed protestors to approach miners directly and set up large-scale protests right on site.
Things turned ugly on June 11, 2013 when protestors and GTAC employees clashed, with one mine opponent arrested on charges of felony theft and misdemeanor property damage. Less than two weeks later, GTAC hired Bulletproof Securities, an Arizona-based paramilitary firm, to guard its interests in the forest. Military-style vehicles rolled in on July 4 and armed mercenaries were spotted near the mine’s entrance shortly thereafter, pulling back only when it was revealed that the security firm was not actually licensed to work in Wisconsin. (Bulletproof has since obtained the necessary permits and the guards are now back in force.)
Following the dust-up, GTAC is hoping to press its advantage. Last week, citing the June 11th incident and stressing the need to protect its workers, the company’s legislative allies introduced a bill seeking to ban hikers (read: protesters) from accessing the mining grounds. Somewhat disingenuously, the bill’s sponsors also argued that the restrictions were necessary to protect said hikers from cluelessly wandering into the path of mining explosives.
On August 15th, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) held an open town hall-style hearing to gather local input on the mining plan. Those in attendance were overwhelmingly opposed to GTAC’s operations. While public sentiment does not always sync up with sound scientific principles, the resistance seems to appropriate in this case, given the absence of any compelling counterevidence from the state. Wisconsin officials have not produced any convincing data — geological, ecological, or otherwise — that credibly justifies the toxic presence of the mine. The proposal, at least as reported by the media, falls well short of the best practices laid out in Wisconsin’s natural resource management plan and the Badger State’s Land Legacy Program. If the state has a better scientific argument to make (beyond just crossing its fingers and hoping for the best when it comes to groundwater poisoning), they clearly have not communicated it very well.
The Wisconsin DNR is expected to rule within two months on whether or not GTAC’s extended trial may continue. Even if approved, obtaining the final set of permits for mining could take the company take as long as 3 years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will also get a say, which could delay the process even further. Protesters have vowed to keep up the fight despite their PR setback earlier this summer. Scott Walker and a slew of mining-friendly state representatives face difficult re-election bids in 2014. Much could change for GTAC’s fortunes between now and then.
In the meantime, all indications are that the hired guns in the Penokees will stick around a while longer.
Trent Knoss is the digital media editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.