April 19, 2014

Lawmakers look at closing land around proposed mine

An official with Gogebic Taconite says a proposal that would allow the company to block access to the site of a proposed iron ore mine would help protect the safety of its workers and the public.

Lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday on the bill, which would grant Gogebic the ability to close about 4,000 acres of heavily forested land in the Penokee Hills. The property, much of which is privately owned by RGGS Land and Mineral, is currently regulated by the state’s Managed Forest Law. In exchange for lower property tax payments, the owners have granted the public access for outdoor recreation, such as hunting and hiking. Gogebic is currently doing exploratory work on the property as it considers opening a large open pit iron ore mine in the area.

The legislation was prompted by an incident in June where a group confronted workers at a drilling site, shouting obscenities, climbing on equipment, and allegedly stealing a camera from a worker. While the confrontation has been the most publicized, Gogebic’s Bob Seitz told a Senate committee Wednesday that there have been other incidents involving mining opponents since exploratory work started, such as bolts being removed from a bridge.

During Wednesday’s hearing, even critics of the bill admitted that the June confrontation was unacceptable. However, state Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) was among several who contend the plan to block all public access to the area is an overreaction. Jauch says “punishing hundreds if not thousands of citizens by restricting their access to thousands of acres of land because of the obscene behavior of a group of a few misfits is the equivalent of applying a nuclear option in response to a fist fight.”

Jauch and others support an alternative that would require protesters to maintain a certain distance from Gogebic crews. However, Seitz says there are many practical problems with that plan because drawing “some kind of moving circle” around workers, in the middle of a densely wooded area, is something that he can’t imagine them being able to do.

Seitz also responded to questions about why the land can’t just be removed from the protections of the Managed Forest Law and become private property again. The change would require the owners to pay tens of thousands of dollars in back property taxes, which Seitz says they do plan to make if a mining permit is approved. He says they want to keep the land enrolled in the program for now though because it would allow them to reopen it to the public when work is not going on. Seitz says “our intention would be to open as much of this land as often as is possible.”

A Senate Committee heard hours of testimony on the bill Wednesday, with many speakers urging lawmakers to slow down before acting on the proposal. A vote on the legislation could come as early as Thursday, although it might be several weeks before the full Senate takes up the bill.