Penokee Hills Mining Controversy
3:00 pm
Wed July 10, 2013

DNR: Mine Security Out of Its Jurisdiction

Heavily armed and masked guards at the Gogebic Taconite mine site have raised the hackles of some Northwoods residents and lawmakers.  But state regulators with the Department of Natural Resources don’t see a problem with the new security force.  

Resident Pete Rasmussen says guards were not displaying their machine guns Wednesday.
Resident Pete Rasmussen says guards were not displaying their machine guns Wednesday.
Credit Pete Rasmussen

Many neighboring residents are complaining about the hired security force stationed at the Penokee mine site in Iron County.  Pete Rasmussen is with the Penokee Hills Education Project, a group strongly opposed to the iron mine proposed by Gogebic Taconite.  Rasmussen lives in Marengo, about 25 miles from the site, and describes seeing the guards after a visit Wednesday.

“They didn’t have their machine guns out.  They were armed and they were in camouflage, and they had their faces covered.  And they were standing watch at the drill site.”

[Editor's note 7/17: GTac says the guards carry semi-automatic weapons, not machine guns.] The guards’ arrival seems like an aggressive move to some local lawmakers.  Senator Bob Jouch and Representative Janet Bewley have written a letter to GTAC asking for the removal of new security force. Bewley argues the guards’ presence is inappropriate and gets in the way of public enjoyment of the area.  

Several heavily armed guards have been put in place at the Penokee mine site.
Several heavily armed guards have been put in place at the Penokee mine site.
Credit Rob Ganson

The land that GTAC leases is privately owned, but it is in enrolled in the state’s managed forest program.  That means the land must remain open to public uses like fishing and hiking.  Here’s Representative Bewley:

“It’s enrolled in a state program that requires that the public be able to enjoy the area.  So this is an area of the North, as a lot of the North – there is the assumption of the ability to enjoy the resources.  The fact that you can go for a walk in the woods and enjoy the area.”

But the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t see a qualitative difference between the new guards and the local law enforcement that GTAC previously hired for security.  Ann Coakley runs the metallic mining program for the DNR. 

“The security that a private company hires is not under the purview of the DNR in any way.  So it’s up to the private company to provide their own security, and we really aren’t making a statement on the security they provide because it really is none of our business.” 

Coakley says the bottom line is that the public still has access to the area.

“I was out there, there were two guards right at the drilling site.  So the guards aren’t keeping people off of the property, the property is still open to the public and people are free to recreate as they always have.”

But resident Pete Rasmussen doesn’t agree. He says the new force creates a very different dynamic. 

“I actually grew up in Rhinelander and grew up in the woods, grew up running around all over the place.  And I have a boy myself, and it’s terrifying to think that these people are just out in the woods with machine guns – and who are the bullets for?  Who tells them what’s ok – I mean they can’t arrest anybody.”

Gogebic Taconite could not be reached for comment, but spokesman Bob Seitz has told the Duluth News Tribune that the guards are necessary for worker safety.  The drill site was vandalized last month by a group of anonymous protesters. 

Those opposed to the new guards say that incident doesn’t justify the level of security that’s now in place.