Wisconsin GOP looking to curtail mine protests, considering shutting down access to site

  • Updated: June 18, 2013 - 5:00 PM

MADISON, Wis. — Republicans are looking to curtail public access to an iron mine site in far northwestern Wisconsin in hopes of stopping protesters from interfering with the project.

The state budget will be amended to give the state Department of Natural Resources authority to pass rules restricting access, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday. Vos had said earlier that DNR may be able to pass an emergency rule on its own, but he said the agency doesn't currently have the authority to do that in this case.

Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, said protesters are uninformed and pose a threat the workers in the area.

The Assembly was scheduled to debate the budget Tuesday and vote on passing it Wednesday before it goes to the state Senate on Thursday. Gov. Scott Walker has to sign it before it becomes law.

Gogebic Taconite wants to build a 4½-mile long open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills on the Ashland-Iron County line just south of Lake Superior. The company has started boring exploratory holes on the site.

The project has sparked an outpouring of complaints from conservationists, who say the mine would devastate the region's natural beauty and contaminate the area's water supply. Authorities say a group of protesters last week slashed tires, damaged equipment, destroyed a geologist's camera and stole her cellphone.

In May, a group of mine opponents nailed an anti-mine banner to the roof of the DNR's Wausau service center, DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney said in a mass email to the agency's staff.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Monday (http://bit.ly/13OA6Rh ) that the site lies within managed forest land, a DNR program that lowers property taxes for landowners who practice sustainable forestry and open the land for public hiking, hunting and fishing. Frank Koehn, president of the Penokee Hills Education Projection, told the newspaper that the group ran a hike with about 50 people to the mine site on Saturday without any incidents. He said it's important for people to see the site so they can understand the operation's impact.

But Gogebic Taconite spokesman Bob Seitz said the company fears protesters might cause more trouble. Republican lawmakers have championed the mine, passing a sweeping bill earlier this year that relaxed Wisconsin's mining regulations to help jump-start the project.

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