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Running out of ore: Hibbing Taconite leaders push for solution to extend mine life

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EYE ON MINING -- For more than 100 years, the mining industry has been a pillar of the Iron Range. Hibbing Taconite is no exception.

"It's always been the first quarter of 2025 we're going to run out," said Chris Johnson, union president at Hibbing Taconite representing around 750 workers.

"That's front and center on our people's minds. It's constant calls, it's constant 'have we heard anything, have we heard anything' and management has been upfront with us and has told us, 'look we don't have anything but we are working on it.' "

It’s not just employees of the mine who are expressing concern.

"Hibbing Taconite has a local economic impact of about $450 million. We can't make that up," said Mike Jugovich, a St. Louis County Commissioner representing communities that rely heavily on the mining industry.

“I know there are people from different areas that would say, 'find another industry, find something else,' and that's great but this is what we do and this is what pays the bills. This is what kids go to college on. This is how people raise their families, on mining."

Both Johnson and Jugovich hope a recent change in ownership at Hibbing Taconite, and a familiar face, will be the saving grace they're looking for.

“Hibbing Taconite is not going to shut down," said Lourenco Goncalves, President, and CEO of Cleveland-Cliffs. “Cleveland-Cliffs needs Hibbing Taconite to be in operation."

While Goncalves said they can extend the mine's life with their own ore reserves he also said, in his opinion, the clear answer sits at a troubled project site in Nashwauk.

“The ideal situation is not to just extend Hibbing Taconite. It’s to expand Hibbing Taconite. It’s to put a DRI plant in Nashwauk and eventually, in the future, to put the steel mill in Nashwauk. The first step is to have full access to Nashwauk to use the ore,” said Goncalves.

He's referencing the former Essar Steel site where Cliffs owns a patchwork of land. Goncalves tried to purchase the property, but was outbid by Mesabi Metallics. That project has since missed payments and deadlines put in place by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

As that site sits unoperational, Goncalves remains outspoken about how some state and local elected officials have handled the project.

“I just would like to see those guys in Itasca County out of my way because I believe that without them Governor Walz would hear a more clear picture of what’s happening in Nashwauk. But, this is beyond my control."

While the future of the Essar site plays out, for now, union members, politicians, and industry leaders have a shared goal - to keep Hibbing Taconite operating, no matter what it takes.

"Never will it be the same if we lose this mine," said Commissioner Jugovich. "That's why it's imperative we work together to figure out a solution because we need this mine to go on."

Mesabi Metallics has until May 1, 2021 to finance the pellet project in Nashwauk and settle any debts. If Mesabi Metallics fails to meet the new deadline, the amendment to the leases won't move forward, and the DNR will be able to cancel its leases through 2021.

Itasca County Commissioner Ben DeNucci sent a statement to CBS 3 writing, in part,

“We believe the citizens of the Iron Range shouldn't have to choose between the completion of Mesabi Metallics and the continued operation of HibTac.” The statement continued adding, “As pointed out by Deputy Commissioner Jess Richards during the Executive Council meeting on December 2nd, there are other viable mine lands that could be used as solutions for the challenge HIbTac is facing.”

DeNucci added they want to see Hibbing Taconite succeed and look forward to Cleveland-Cliffs submitting a mine plan application to the DNR for their property in Itasca County.

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Kristen Vake

Anchor, Reporter

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