Walz appoints 7 agency heads, including DNR

Sarah Strommen, currently an assistant commissioner at the Department of Natural Resources, answers questions after Gov.-elect Tim Walz announced she will lead the DNR, the first woman appointed, during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 at Bill Sorg's Dairy Farm in Hastings, Minn.

Mere hours before Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz was sworn into office, and just days after he announced a new commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, the failed Essar Steel Minnesota project in Nashwauk challenged the new administration with the unsurprising news that Essar Global was back in the game.

After all, what did Essar have to lose? The company was out of international debt, cleared money owed by Mesabi Metallics and since July 2018 had lurked in the shadows as primary players in regaining state mineral leases critical to the project’s future.

The state knew from the beginning that Essar Global was in some way a puppeteer pulling the strings, but former Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration deflected and downplayed the involvement of a reviled company on the Iron Range that cost contractors and the state millions by filing for bankruptcy in 2016 with a project half-finished.

Perhaps the writing on the wall was all too clear for the outgoing administration.

It couldn’t have been pure coincidence that the Ruia family launched itself back into public viewing as Walz and his team moved into St. Paul. But Monday’s letter from new DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen to Mesabi Metallics, concerning Essar Global and the project, couldn’t have sent the message any clearer.

At this point in time, the Walz administration understands what it means that Essar and the Ruias are back in the picture. And like the deadbeat tenant Essar was in 2016, Walz and Strommen are ready to throw them to the curb.

While the action by the administration to ban Essar from Minnesota is bold and long overdue — the Dayton administration passed on its chances to do the same — it also seems to send a conciliatory message to those on the Range infuriated over the lack of progress in Nashwauk.

That message: The state is ready to own up to its mistakes here.

What the steps taken Monday mean in the overall picture is unclear.

Without Essar Global, does Mesabi Metallics simply reset to its financial position from weeks ago? Will the state allow the company one last chance this spring to start construction in earnest? Is another bankruptcy filing on the horizon?

Monday’s movement from Walz and the DNR is a step in the right direction. Lawsuits and challenges are sure to follow any decision on Essar and the leases. But with the Iron Range Delegation on board, this is the state’s best to get things right in Nashwauk.

No more extensions.

No more Essar Global.

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