MADISON, Wis. — A company looking to dig a huge iron mine just south of Lake Superior is having problems with protesters.

Wisconsin Public Radio reported Gogebic (go-GEE'-bic) Taconite employees encountered about 15 protesters at the site on Tuesday morning as they were preparing to start drilling a series of exploratory test holes.

Iron County Sheriff Tony Furyk issued a statement Wednesday saying the protesters had scattered into nearby woods by the time officers arrived. He says investigators are looking into allegations one of the protesters stole a geologist's cell phone and camera.

WPR reports authorities said there were reports of vandalism and barricades blocking the site. Furyk's release made no mention of those reports. He didn't immediately return a message left at his office.

The mine has grown into one of the most contentious environmental issues Wisconsin has faced in years. Opponents insist the project will pollute the pristine area.

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's reservation lies just north of the mine site. The tribe has been fiercely opposed to mine, arguing pollution from the site will contaminate the Bad River and Lake Superior and destroy their treasured wild rice beds.

The tribe sent a letter to the state Department of Natural Resources last week raising a number of concerns with the exploratory permit, taking the DNR to task for not consulting with the tribe before issuing the permit, not posting on its website when the permit application was deemed complete and not requiring the company to obtain a wastewater discharge permit.

Ann Coakley, director of the DNR's waste and materials management bureau, told The Associated Press Gogebic Taconite followed all the proper steps to obtain a drilling permit and the agency had no grounds to deny it. She said the company began drilling on Wednesday.