Militarized Mining in Wisconsin
Armed guards protecting extractive resource operations is not an uncommon sight in Central and South American countries where there is growing community resistance to ecologically destructive mining and oil projects. As early as 2008, the United Nations documented “an emerging trend in Latin America but also in other regions of the world indicates situations of private security companies protecting transnational extractive corporations whose employees are often involved in suppressing legitimate social protest of communities and human rights and environmental organizations where these corporations operate.” (Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of people to self-determination.)
In a precedent-setting ruling in Canada, the Superior Court of Ontario ruled that the Canadian mining company, Hudbay Minerals, can potentially be held responsible in Canada for rapes and murder at a mining project formerly owned by Hudbay’s subsidiary in Guatemala. The case is now proceeding in Canadian courts.
Welcome to Wisconsin’s Mining Colony
Until quite recently, the deployment of private security companies was unheard of in the north woods of Wisconsin where Gogebic Taconite (GTac) has proposed a mountaintop removal operation that will create the largest open pit iron mine in the world. Mining pollution will threaten the largest remaining natural wild rice wetland in the entire Great Lakes Basin downstream on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation. Wild rice is a sacred plant for the Ojibwe and an important food source (see “Resisting Resource Colonialism in the Lake Superior Region” Z Magazine, September 2011).
However, in July 2013, Wisconsin residents hiking in the Penokee Hills forest on land open for public recreation in the vicinity of GTac’s exploratory drilling operations, encountered masked security guards with automatic rifles and camouflage uniforms. The guards were employees of Bulletproof Security, an Arizona-based private security firm that uses former military and law enforcement personnel. The firm advertises their ability to “smoothly manage surrounding threats so our clients can go about their business even in the most hostile environments.”
When photos of the armed guards were posted online, local citizens were outraged. State Senator Bob Jauch and Representative Janet Bewley, representing the proposed mining area, issued an open letter to Bill Williams, the president of GTac, demanding the immediate withdrawal of “the heavily armed masked commando security forces” defending the company’s property in the Penokee Hills of Iron and Ashland Counties.
“We cannot begin to describe how upset the citizens of Northern Wisconsin are at the sight of our forests being patrolled by masked soldiers carrying assault weapons like mercenaries in a time of war,” said Jauch and Bewley. “The images are horrifying and the action by the company to hire this high security Arizona firm is appalling. These weapons are used to kill. Is the company really going to argue that these camouflaged masked men really need this show of force to protect themselves from innocent citizens armed with bug spray who are hiking the forest to view the drill site?”
Paul DeMain, editor of News from Indian Country in Hayward, Wisconsin, posted a video online of a semi-automatic rifle resting on the front seat of a truck that belongs to an armed guard at a drilling site. “It’s come to a sad situation,” he said, “when you’ve got to have a machine gun to protect a business that people around here don’t want.”
GTac spokesperson Bob Seitz told the Duluth News Tribune that the company hired the security firm after about 15 mining opponents “dressed in black and wearing masks violently attacked our drill site” on June 11, 2013. The protestors, with bandanas hiding their faces, raided the drill site, vandalized mining equipment and took a camera from a geologist working on site. There was no physical violence but one protestor was charged with robbery by force. GTac spokesperson Bob Seitz immediately labeled the protestors as eco-terrorists and compared them to al-Qaida.
While GTac justifies its hiring of armed guards in response to so-called “eco-terrorists,” Senator Jauch said the show of force was unnecessary since there has not been any trouble in the Penokee Hills since the June 11 protest. “There was no threat, there was no danger and, all of a sudden, GI Joe shows up in the north woods.”
GTac at first refused to remove the guards. Then they learned that Bulletproof Security was not licensed to operate in Wisconsin and withdrew the guards on July 10, replacing them with another security force licensed to operate in Wisconsin. “These actions demonstrate that GTac has no respect for the public and no regard for the law,” said Jauch. “Had GTac not been in such a hurry to hire a militia that’s armed more for war than defense of property, they could have hired a legally licensed Wisconsin firm.”
The John Muir chapter of the Wisconsin Sierra Club has filed a complaint about Bulletproof Security with the state’s Department of Safety and Professional Services, which has responsibility for licensing security firms. Anthony Stella, a former district attorney from nearby Hurley, Wisconsin, cited Wisconsin state law alleging that GTac committed a felony by hiring unlicensed out of state guards for its drilling site. The local district attorney has not yet decided whether to charge GTac with violating Wisconsin law.
Racism and Violent Threats
While Governor Walker and Republican legislators have condemned the June 11 raid on the drill site, they have been silent as racist and violent threats have appeared on a Facebook page entitled “Wisconsinites for Safe Mining.” A photo that has since been removed shows a black and white portrait of a Native American man in traditional dress, reminiscent of Edward Sheriff Curtis, the turn-of-the-century ethnologist and photographer of Native American people, with the caption “Tries to Explain How Natives Are a Proud People, Too Drunk to Form Words.” The group later took down the photo and blamed it on anti-mine hackers who wanted to discredit the pro-mining interests.
The group provoked further outrage when it used Facebook to make death threats against four female anti-mining activists. WKOW-TV, the ABC affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, reported that a Facebook user named Terry Dipper identified Lisa Wells and three other women as making threats against the mine as justification for the guards. In a comment following Dipper’s, Wisconsinites for Safe Mining wrote: “We have initiated a shoot on sight order for the malcontents that you have listed. Trespassing on a mining site=genocide.” Three of the women told WKOW-TV they are calling for a criminal investigation in response to the threat.
Someone from Wisconsinites for Safe Mining, who refused to identify themselves, told WKOW that the comment was obviously meant as satire. Lisa Wells doesn’t think so. “It’s not a joke when you’re threatening someone’s life and you’re putting a target on their head.”
No Social License to Operate for GTac
The real target of GTac’s armed guards is not 15 protestors, but the growing resistance to the project among all 11 Wisconsin tribes, environmental organizations and local officials. When Wisconsin tribal leaders met with Governor Scott Walker in September 2001, they said that the mine project “cannot be developed and operated using current mining technologies and practices, without destroying the environmental quality, including the waters, wetlands, streams, rivers, air, lands and forests of the Bad River watershed, the Bad River Indian Reservation and Lake Superior.” The proposed mine, said Bad River Band tribal chair Mike Wiggins, “would destroy the Band’s way of life.”
The mayors of all three communities downstream from the proposed mine in Bayfield, Washburn, and Ashland testified at a listening session prior to the passage of the Iron Mine bill that was written by GTac. They told legislators that they would not benefit from a mine. “The overriding thought on any economic development in the Bayfield area,” said Bayfield Mayor Larry MacDonald, “is do no harm to Lake Superior, which is 10 percent of the world’s fresh water. You put one drop of pollutant in there and it takes 192 years to get out of there. Collectively, we are afraid.” Some local support for the mine can be found in the Ironwood/Hurley area about 15 miles from the proposed mine. They would benefit from mining jobs but would not suffer the effects of downstream pollution.
Ashland Mayor Bill Whalen expressed solidarity between the Ojibwe and the local communities at a press conference. “This is not a Native Sovereign issue vs. the State of Wisconsin,” he said. “This is a water and legislative issue that affects us all.” Just before the Wisconsin Assembly passed the Iron Mine bill, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Cline Group, the parent company of GTac, had been cited 53 times over the past 3 years for violating water quality standards at several of its Illinois coal mines (“Mine firm owner under fire,” 3/7/2013).
Mining Industry Writes Its Own Regulations
Despite overwhelming public and tribal opposition, the GTac bill was passed by a close partisan vote and signed into law by Governor Walker in March 2013. While the law gave GTac everything it wanted in the way of avoiding legal liability for any pollution the mine would cause, it did not provide GTac with what the mining industry has called a “Social License to Operate” where the mining company is seen as having won broad social support for its extractive activities. The failure to obtain such a social license raises the political and financial risks of a project and can often lead to the defeat of a mining project by widespread community opposition. This is exactly what happened when an Indian, environmental and sportfishing alliance led to the defeat of the Crandon, Wisconsin metallic sulfide mine project in 2003 (see “The Crandon Mine Saga, Z Magazine, February 2004).
Prior to passage of the bill, Republican legislators claimed that the bill would provide jobs without harming the headwaters of the Bad River watershed. After the GTac bill was passed, the bill’s chief sponsor, Senator Tom Tiffany, told the Madison Capital Times: “The bill reflects the reality of mining. There are going to be some impacts to the environment above the ore body. If the law is challenged and ends up in court, the judge needs to know it was the Legislature’s intent to allow adverse (environmental) impacts. That way, a judge can’t find fault if the environment is impacted.” Mike Wiggins said his tribe would use lawsuits, its own water regulatory authority and grassroots resistance to fight the mine.
When mining companies fail to win local support for their mining projects, they frequently resort to a militaristic strategy of employing security forces and targeting anti-mining advocates for repression, as documented by the United Nations and numerous human rights and environmental advocacy groups. While Bulletproof Security did not harm anyone during the week it guarded the GTac drill site, it did exacerbate divisions within the community about the mine and fuelled a racist atmosphere directed against the Ojibwe and their non-Native allies.
The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Harvest
A central gathering place for the organized opposition to the proposed mine is the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe’s harvest and educational camp on public forest land in the Penokee Hills of Iron County. Paul DeMain established the camp with the support of the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe as a gesture of solidarity with the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe. The camp is within the ceded territory where the Ojibwe have treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather. LCO harvest camp elder Melvin Gasper says American Indian harvest camps date back centuries, when tribes lived off the land.
The camp’s mission is to make a presence in the Penokee Hills and host LCO tribal members and other guests who are doing an inventory of resources, trail blazing, archaeology work, and harvesting. The camp also lays the foundation for a possible legal case invoking their federal treaty rights. Professor Charles F. Wilkinson at the University of Colorado Law School, an expert on Indian treaties, said that “because Republicans have admitted they expect environmental damage in the very text of the [Iron Mine] bill, the mine likely will have to be revised or abandoned when challenged in light of Native American treaties…. Earlier this year a federal judge in Washington State ruled, under similar circumstances, that the treaties require more than just allowing tribal members to hunt and fish—the treaties also require healthy habitat so that the species can thrive.”
The camp is on county land where DeMain has documented almost 200 Indian allotments in the late 1800s located directly on top of the ore deposit. Ancient mining artifacts in the region have been carbon dated to 260 AD. “Most of these land allotments were stolen outright, or deceptively removed from Indian people,” said DeMain. Wisconsin has a long tradition of removing Indians from mineral rich lands, beginning with the seizure of lead mines in southwestern Wisconsin from the Sauk, Mesquakie and Winnebago people in the mid-1820s. The Winnebago Revolt of 1827 and the Black Hawk War in 1832 was a direct response to this resource theft.
The initial press reports on the June 11 protest suggested that the people who raided the drilling site had the support of the harvest camp. In fact, the protestors were thrown out of the harvest camp because their protest was counterproductive to the camp’s public outreach and peaceful opposition to the proposed mine. Camp director Mel Gasper said “This is a peaceful camp and we are going to keep it that way.” Mike Wiggins called for nonviolent opposition to the proposed mine and condemned “any planned or improvised act of violence against the mining company.”
Pete Rasmussen, vice president of the Penokee Hills Education Project, said the heavily armed guards in the area are meant to scare people out of the wilderness around the mine site. He told Mother Jones magazine: “We have been gathering more and more people who want to come up to the area. Once they see what’s at stake, it’s hard for them to fathom that they want to blow it up.” Over 2,000 people have visited the camp and taken walks through the proposed mine site since the camp opened in May, 2013.
Racism and Restricting Public Access
GTac’s rhetoric about eco-terrorism prompted State Rep. Mark Honadel, a major recipient of mining industry campaign contributions, to insert a measure into the state budget bill that would bar protestors from getting close to any mining activity. The measure was withdrawn but Republican legislators plan to introduce a bill that would restrict public access to areas near sampling and drilling activity by the mining company. A less restrictive “safety zone” around work sites has been proposed by Senator Jauch and other legislators.
GTac has completed its core sample drilling and has applied for a permit to sample about 4,000 tons of rock from five locations on the site to assess the amount of ore. But the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) returned the company’s bulk sampling permit in July for lack of adequate assessment of numerous environmental risks, including potential acid rock drainage and the release of asbestos dust created by explosions.
The company denies that asbestiform minerals such as grunerite, that occur in iron ore bodies in Michigan and Minnesota, are present in the Gogebic Range of Wisconsin. However, the Wisconsin Geological Survey says grunerite is a widespread mineral in the Penokee iron formation and lists several outcrops within the proposed mine site.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, grunerite asbestos is one of the most toxic forms of asbestos and causes lung cancer, mesothelioma and pulmonary fibrosis. A University of Minnesota health study of taconite miners found that the rate of mesothelioma on Minnesota’s Iron Range is almost three times higher than that of the general population in Minnesota.
GTac now says they may be able to avoid blasting by using rock that was left behind by U.S. Steel when it blasted the rock in the 1960s. Over 70 citizens and tribal members testified at a public hearing on the proposed bulk sampling activity held by the Wisconsin DNR at the Hurley High School on August 15. The overwhelming majority of the testimony was against the project, citing concerns about treaty rights, pollution of critical watersheds and GTac’s coverup of the health hazard from asbestiform minerals in the rock to be blasted.
Meanwhile, GTac supporters intensified their criticism of the harvest and educational camp as Iron County forester Gary Glonek posted racist and misleading cartoons on Facebook attempting to portray the Ojibwe as “eco-terrorists.” Glonek is also part of the Iron County Forestry Committee that oversees public county forest lands, including the area where LCO has established a harvest camp.
One such post entitled “Welcome to the Penokee Hills Protest Camp,” features three monkeys covering their respective eyes, ears and mouth with the following caption: “After a busy day of vandalizing and destroying equipment, sabotaging bridges, and threatening workers, the weary eco terrorist can enjoy a well deserved rest in one of our ‘safe wigwams’ and will be provided with a hearty meal and a rousing ‘job well done’ by our discrete support staff. Our promise to you is that we never saw a thing.” At the bottom of the post there is “Special thanks to Iron County for supplying a permit for base of operations.”
Iron County Forestry Committee
Glonek recently persuaded the Iron County Forestry Committee to recommend that the Iron County Board file criminal and civil charges against the Lac Courte Oreilles Treaty Harvest and Education camp for violating county ordinances and state County Forest Law. He said that the state DNR would remove their certification for managing County Forest Law if they allowed the harvest camp to remain in place. The rest of the forestry committee believed this and felt they had no choice but to evict the tribe.
In fact, the DNR never made such a threat. But state Senator Tom Tiffany wrote a letter to Iron County saying the camp is illegal and that tribal members are “suppressing people from being able to utilize the county forests as they should be able to.” Iron County District Attorney Marty Lipske said he was not aware of any criminal activity at the camp. Iron County corporation counsel Michael Pope said the harvest camp has exceeded a two-week limit for such gatherings. Joe Vairus, forestry administrator for the county, said the site has grown to “20 to 25 wigwams—it’s a squatters village, that’s what it is really.”
Vairus denied that this action has anything to do with the proposed mine next to the camp. Yet two months earlier, in May 2013, this same committee voted unanimously to support a one-year permit for the harvest camp. After the permit was granted, Vairus said they sent a letter to LCO asking them to apply for a large-gathering permit instead. But Paul DeMain, a spokesperson for the camp, says he never received a letter from Iron County raising questions about the legality of the camp.
According to Lac Courte Oreilles tribal chair Mic Isham, the tribes have the right to establish harvest camps anywhere in the territory that was ceded to the United States in 19th century treaties. The only reason the tribe sought Iron County permission was to ensure that non-Native visitors would also be allowed to camp there. Any attempt to remove the Ojibwe from their harvest camp would be challenged in federal court and would likely be resisted by the Ojibwe and their non-Native supporters. Mike Wiggins told reporters that a second camp will be established soon in the ceded territory of Wisconsin where the Ojibwe have treaty-protected harvest rights.
Over 100 supporters of the harvest camp attended the July 30 meeting of the Iron County Board where they considered the recommendation of the forestry committee to evict the Ojibwe from their camp. After public testimony about the peaceful nature of the camp and Ojibwe treaty rights, the board voted unanimously to table the motion to file criminal and civil charges against camp organizers and sent the issue back to the forestry committee so that a permit allowing the camp could be obtained through negotiations with the tribe.
The Assault on Treaty Rights
The attempt to remove the Ojibwe from their harvest camp is part of a longstanding hostility to Indian treaty rights, which are seen by the state of Wisconsin and the mining industry as obstacles to establish a mining district in the Lake Superior region. During the height of the Ojibwe treaty conflict from 1983-1992, pro-mining Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson sent his top advisor, James Klauser, a former chief lobbyist for Exxon’s proposed Crandon mine, to negotiate a buyout of Ojibwe treaty rights. Exxon, Noranda and other mining companies saw the treaties as obstacles to mining. Klauser was unable to persuade any of the six Ojibwe tribes to “lease” their treaty rights in exchange for money.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized the sovereign authority of the Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe Tribe to regulate water quality on their reservation, just downstream from Exxon’s proposed Crandon mine, Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle (before he was governor) sued the EPA and the tribe in federal court. The state, along with the Crandon Mining Company, tied up the issue in court from 1995-2002 until the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling affirming the tribe’s right establish water quality standards to protect its wild rice beds. The Bad River Ojibwe now has the same authority under the Clean Water Act to enforce tribal water quality standards on its reservation. Any polluted waters flowing from the Penokee Hills open pit iron mine and waste piles into the Bad River watershed and tribe’s wild rice beds are subject to tribal regulatory authority enforced by the EPA.
The alliance between the tribes and the local communities is unnerving to pro-mining forces who won the fight over mining legislation but are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the most directly affected mining communities. So far the presence of armed guards and state-sponsored assaults on treaty rights has increased support for those who want to preserve the sustainable jobs in forestry, tourism, fishing and subsistence harvesting that depend on clean water. Militarized mining is not a solution. It’s the problem.
Al Gedicks is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council. He is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.