Local push helped mines stay essential

Water vapor condenses in the cold air over a line of ore cars recently filled with still hot taconite pellets at the rail yard in Mountain Iron Wednesday afternoon.

Northeastern Minnesota legislators — from a distance — this week lobbied Governor Tim Walz to designate several regional industries as essential.

With success.

In an electronic letter to Walz, legislators requested that the logging, wood products, pulp and paper, and iron ore mining industries, be deemed essential in the event a COVID-19 shelter-in-place order is issued by Walz. The request also includes iron ore mining vendors and suppliers.

“We need the minerals to keep the mining and steel industry going,” said Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm. “And on top of that, it would be a big hit on unemployment.”

All Democrat and Republican legislators from northeastern Minnesota signed the letter, said Tomassoni.

“I also personally texted the governor and asked that the mining industry not be shut down,” said Tomassoni. “It’s the jobs and the essential nature of the industry. In addition to the 4,000 people who work in the mines, there’s about 12,000 people who work at businesses associated with the industry.”

Walz on Wednesday issued a stay-at-home order for the entire state.

Minnesotans not involved in activities or work deemed critical under Walz’s order, are directed to limit movements outside their homes to essential needs such as going to the grocery store, pharmacy, or gas station.

A stay-at-home order is generally viewed as not as restrictive as a shelter-in-place order would be.

Walz’s order deems iron ore mining as a critical sector, meaning iron ore workers will continue to go to work to produce iron ore pellets.

Wood products manufacturing within the state is also identified as critical.

Iron ore mining has a more than $3 billion annual economic impact on the state economy and generates about $190 million per year in state taxes and royalties.

The forest products industry employs about 32,000, pays about $1.8 billion in wages, and produces about $9.1 billion in products annually, according to Duluth-based Minnesota Forest Industries.

The one-page legislators’ letter says other states have recognized the critical importance of industrial manufacturing and the production of raw materials and issued exemptions from shelter-in-place orders.

“These industries are not just critical for our region’s economic welfare, but in one fashion or another, all of us depend on products produced with these materials in our daily lives,” states the letter.

Walz’s office did not return a phone message for comment.

Groups representing the mining and wood products industries also appealed to Walz.

“The Iron Mining Association (IMA) continues to monitor the State of Minnesota’s response to COVID-19 and remains in communication with Governor Walz’s administration about iron mining and its essential role in steel-making and infrastructure needs in the United States,” said Kelsey Johnson, IMA president.

Northeastern Minnesota’s iron ore plants produce iron ore pellets. Iron ore pellets are the main ingredient used to make steel. About 80% of the first-pour steel made in the United States is made from Minnesota iron.

The region’s forest products industry produces the wood needed to manufacture lumber, utility poles, siding panels, paper, industrial packaging, engineered wood products and more.

Mike Birkeland, vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries and Timbers Producers Association, said the association also sent a letter to Walz.

“Whether its utility poles, pallets, lumber, siding, or temporary shelters, or pulpwood, the industry is a fundamental part of the supply chain,” said Birkeland.

Nationally, the American Iron & Steel Institute is asking the Trump administration to designate steel as an essential industry.

The domestic steel industry is already deemed important to national security under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act.

“As the Secretary of Commerce determined in 2018, steel is important to national security well beyond obvious defense applications to encompass critical infrastructure and transportation, electric power and energy systems, as well as water systems,” said Thomas Gibson, AISI president and CEO in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence. “Without access to a reliable source of steel production during this crisis, our national and economic security will be severely impacted.”

An initial U.S. Department of Homeland Security list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers,” identifies workers necessary for the manufacturing of materials and products needed for medical supply chains, supply chains associated with transportation, energy, communications, food, agriculture, chemical manufacturing, nuclear facilities, operation of dams, water and wastewater treatment, emergency services, the defense industrial base, and workers needed to maintain the continuity of those manufacturing functions and associated supply chains.

The Department of Homeland Security list provides guidance to states.

Businesses which support the region’s mining and wood products industries also sent letters to Walz.

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