About a year ago, on July 11, 2018, the state of Minnesota relented in giving Mesabi Metallics mineral leases critical to the Nashwauk pellet project ensnared in bankruptcy by Essar Steel Minnesota back in 2016.
Despite some immediate connections to Essar, a judge’s ruling that granted a large amount of adjacent land to Cleveland-Cliffs and the quick ouster of former front man Tom Clarke, the company forged ahead saying the right things that it planned to make a December 2019 construction deadline.
A year later, reality is much different. Essar is truly back in the picture and taking its role as the public face of the project. Mesabi Metallics has disappeared, somewhat literally, as its website has been wiped and its public relations team not yet replaced.
A December deadline to build the pellet plant is unreachable and Essar — along with its new planned development team — want 18 more months added to the mineral lease agreement after this year. An extension of that sorts is ludacris considering the time provided to Mesabi Metallics to start full-scale construction, which was supposed to happen in March. It hasn’t happened.
Thus far, the state Department of Natural Resources and Gov. Tim Walz have not budged from their effort to debar Essar or moved from their position to work with the company, going as far as to say Mesabi Metallics needs to find more credible partners in its quest to complete the project.
But there isn’t a lot to like about where the project stands today. After a year, the Mesabi Metallics experiment has failed.
But what should worry the Iron Range more isn’t whether the original pellet plant will be built, but what sort of mine plan Mesabi Metallics, Essar, or whoever is in control of the project now has beyond a 10-15 year period?
And beyond that, what realistic timeline — if any — can the direct-reduced iron facility be built into operation?
As the steel industry continues to change and evolve into more electric arc furnaces, the Iron Range needs to get in on the action and soon. That means the state needs to take a serious look at the permits needed — and those needing to be renewed by Mesabi Metallics — and make a real determination if the fastest path to DRI is through them or another company like Cliffs.
We know December isn’t realistic, but how much more time does the Range have to wait for a real path forward? Another year of talking about doing something, but doing very little to nothing, is unacceptable.