IRON RANGE — If you surveyed the right population of America’s electorate, they might want to do to the political system what Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman did to some land at the United Taconite mine in Eveleth on a rainy September morning.
Push a button. Blow it up. Have a crew pick up the pieces and make it into something useful.
But Hortman, joined by a dozen other state legislators, are hoping a recent tour of the Iron Range allows them to skip a few of those steps in rebuilding how government works, at least in Minnesota.
The bipartisan group of legislators, mostly freshmen who months earlier finished their first session in a rushed overtime flurry of hearings, closed-door meetings and bill signings, were here at the request of their colleague Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora.
It was Lislegard who proposed the freshmen doing a tour of each other’s districts in order to learn more about the issues facing them. The idea was sanctioned by Hortman, who was impacted by her own visit to the Range early in her legislative days in 2007, led by the late state Rep. Tom Rukavina.
“Every Minnesotan should see a taconite mine — it’s such a part of our history,” Hortman said in a phone interview, noting the freshmen tour was the first of its kind, and organized by Lislegard. “He put together this tour to show people the Range, and it was very easy to say yes.”
The speaker added she was most impacted by the Port of Duluth visit, which drove home the wide-reaching connection and impact of the Range mining industry, not only in the economic development of Duluth, but the infrastructure of railroads laid by earl mining companies.
“There’s a lot we can do with the assets in northern Minnesota,” Hortman said. “It was really an eye-opener.”
“My first impression of the Range is it’s resiliency,” said Rep. Nathan Nelson, R-Hinckley, in a follow-up email about the trip. “As the industry, the materials (ore, copper and nickel) and global markets change, the Range has continually adapted.”
Among the stops made by lawmakers was to the Mesabi Trail station in Eveleth, the Cleveland-Cliffs United Taconite mine in Eveleth and processing plant in Forbes, the Heliene USA solar plant in Mountain Iron, Giants Ridge, the Aurora City Hall, PolyMet near Hoyt Lakes and the Port of Duluth.
“I feel as legislators and policymakers, it’s important for us to see it, feel it and touch it and really understand it when making decisions,” Lislegard said, noting the tour showcased the close knit relationships with companies, communities and other industries. “You can’t just read about it or be told about it. The goal was for them to really understand who we are and why we’re passionate about our way of life, and how everything on the Iron Range is intricately connected through natural resources.”
He continued: “I was extremely proud to bring them up here. We need to do more of that across the state so we can make better informed decisions.”
Having a blast, climbing the truck
The aforementioned explosion of land metaphor, that was Hortman hitting the button to a planned mine blast at UTac. Legislators audibly awed as an explosion went off — a test run, the mine workers and Dyno Nobel experts explained.
Much more impressive to the group was the real thing, which carried a hint of irony with it.
The portion of land Hortman helped decimate for Cliffs was where the former Highway 53 route cut through the Iron Range between Virginia and Eveleth. As part of a long-standing deal with the state, Cliffs was able to request the highway be relocated to expand its UTac mine operations several decades.
As the project was being finished, the city of Virginia found out there was a $5.4 million shortfall in funding from the state, which insisted a separate party run the utility lines along the bottom of the structure, creating a funding gap.
For a few sessions, the state kicked the funding can down the road, until Lislegard found an ally in Hortman during his first term this year. It was Hortman who ultimately finalized the city’s money in the state tax bill before taking a load of dynamite to the old road location.
While the lawmakers had their share of memorable firsts — seeing a mine blast and climbing on the large trucks (a “fan favorite” as they described) — it was an important stop in the cog that is the Range mining process.
At the Eveleth mine is where it all begins, before taconite goes off to Forbes to be made into pellets, and taken from there to the Port of Duluth by rail car, before being shipped off to blast furnaces across the U.S.
Taconite mining is Minnesota’s oldest extraction industry, active for more than 130 years on the Iron Range. It’s the base part of the economy and jobs.
At United Taconite alone, Cliffs employs 515 people at a payroll around $80 million. According to the company, it buys more than $235 million in local services and supplies and provides $13 million in annual local and taconite taxes.
That’s a total impact of $328 million a year from one mine site. There are five currently active iron mines in the region.
“I was very impressed with the innovation that the communities and partners have invested in,” said Rep. John Huot, DFL-Apple Valley, in a follow-up email.
Nelson said he was excited to see the company’s efforts toward a safe environment.
“I was impressed with how the whole operation ran so seemingly smooth,” he said. “Mining is a ‘dirty job,’ yet the care for the health of the employees, the town and the environment was very evident. The operating procedures are well thought out, allowing the removal of ore with a low impact to the environment.”
Solar powering the Range
Located across the road from the main entrance to U.S. Steel’s Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron, the largest taconite mine in North America, is Minnesota’s only remaining solar panel manufacturer Heliene USA.
On the outside is a rather unremarkable building, left in the wake of Silicon Energy’s failure to launch a solar panel plant years earlier. Inside however is a whir of moving parts and people assembling about 1,000 solar panels a day using a mix of automation and human labor.
Heliene’s headquarters are located in Canada and the company continues to operate its original plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. On the global scale, it’s a small player in the North American market, but with huge importance locally.
Heliene is proving to be a step toward diversifying the Range economy — diverse being the buzzword local and regional officials use to describe their hopes for the future — that builds alongside the mining industry.
And Heliene is growing, pushing the idea of new economic realities to become more of a possibility. The plant already employs about 90 people on a 24-hour, six-day-a-week production schedule that provides for a market of residential and business consumers. Heliene was recently approved for more funding from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board that will allow the company to add more employees, a fourth shift, more automation and more production.
“We’re trying,”said Helien Plant Manager Joanne Bath, while noting the Mountain Iron site’s $5 million annual payroll and $15 an hour wages.
“They utilize a different skill set than the mines, however, it shows the resiliency of the community to look forward and provide jobs and energy solutions for the future,” Nelson said of the plant. “I hope in the future, more of the components for the panels could be sourced from the U.S.”
Heliene even appears to have the workforce solution figured out, hiring employees as part of a second chance program that focuses on formerly incarcerated applicants. A lot of their workers, Bath said, come from the 12-step house in Virginia after being clean for a year.
After training, they dive right into the production cycle, some of them tasked with running $1 million pieces of equipment.
“Everyone needs a second chance and that’s why we try to bring them in and mentor them,” Bath said. “It’s amazing the potential people have if you believe in them.”
The touring lawmakers were walked through the production end of the plant, careful not to touch the panels or cross the invisible thresholds that automatically shut down the automated machines.
Onto the East Range
To understand the city of Aurora’s role in the shaping of modern day mining and the potential future of copper-nickel efforts, it only takes a stroll along the walls of city hall, which represent an unofficial historical timeline of the regional industry.
On a Saturday morning, a familiar face roamed the halls of the government offices waiting for the tour group of legislators to arrive.
It was Al Hodnik, the chairman and CEO of ALLETE, Inc., the parent company of Minnesota Power. A noted history buff who was mayor of Aurora for 10 years from 1988 to 1998, he also serves on the board of directors PolyMet.
Hodnik would be the tour guide for the morning, walking them through the early beginnings to the Erie/LTV Mine. At the mention of Erie, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, interjected that his grandfather had worked at the mine.
Hodnik also took the group through the legislative lineage of the House seat held by their host Lislegard, passing from lawmakers like Fred Cina to Joe Begich to Tom Rukavina.
It was Cina, who hailed from Aurora, that authored a bill to establish the current taconite tax. Mining companies don’t pay property taxes, rather doling out a portion of what they extract to benefit local schools and communities through the IRRRB. As PolyMet becomes more of a reality, it will be the job of Liselgard — an Aurora product who was on the city council for more than a decade and was also its mayor — to guide a similar bill for copper-nickel mines to passage.
PolyMet is set to become the state’s first-ever copper-nickel mine, recycling the former Erie/LTV site for its processing plant in Hoyt Lakes and mining along the Duluth Complex near Babbitt.
For more than a decade the project has undergone environmental reviews by federal and state agencies, but finds itself mired in controversy and several lawsuits hoping to block or overturn the permits.
Nelson and his DFL colleague Huot, both said they wanted to walk away from the project with more knowledge on the project.
“I walked away with a better understanding of the PolyMet project,” Huot said. “I trust the people of the Iron Range to make sure that outside companies do the right thing when it comes to the mining at the PolyMet site.”
Nelson, a Republican, echoed those sentiments, saying the tour “did just that” about his understanding of the project.
“Mining is going to happen somewhere in the world,” he said. “I think it should be in Minnesota where we can do it responsibly and set the standard for the rest of the world to follow.”