October 22, 2014

Bill restricting access to mine site headed to governor

Legislation that would restrict public access to the land around a proposed iron ore mine is on its way to Governor Scott Walker, after winning final approval Thursday night in the state Assembly.

The bill would allow Gogebic Taconite to keep the land around the site of a proposed open pit mine in Iron and Ashland counties enrolled in the state’s Managed Forest Land program, but restrict public access as the company continues to do survey work. The public would have to stay at least 600 feet from crews working on about 1,000 acres of land in the Penokee Hills, although the property could be reopened when the company is not doing work at the location.

The measure comes in response to an incident at the mine site earlier this summer, where environmental activists confronted workers. A video of the incident was made public, showing the protesters chanting obscenities, threatening workers, and climbing on equipment. State Representative Mary Czaja (R-Irma) said the change is about ensuring worker safety, after the protester threatened to returned.

State Representative Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) was among many Democrats who argued Gogebic could restrict access to the site by just removing the land from the program, but doesn’t want to because it would have to pay about $900,000 to local governments. Bewley said the bill could damage the economy of the region by shutting off access to land often used for hunting, although Republicans noted that the closed area accounts for only about one percent of the land in the region that’s open to the public.

Democrats also warned that the bill might do nothing to stop those who are intent on confronting crews working in a remote area State Representative Fred Clark (D-Baraboo) said it may just “open the door to a mess” as protests over the proposed mine continue.

The bill passed on a 54-39 party line vote.