Footprints of the giant Mesabi

The tailings pond at an Iron Range taconite mine.

The tailings pond at an Iron Range taconite mine.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Once, a few years ago, I was overcome with the urge to climb a roadside berm at an Iron Range taconite mine. I drove by this spot all the time, but couldn’t picture what was on the other side.

So I did it. (Don’t try this at home kids). I scrambled up the side to peer over the rampart. I’d seen mine pits before, but this was a tailings pond. Picture a vast lake surrounded by martian landscape spanning the entirety of your peripheral vision. The groaning engines in the pit miles away were the only sound.

I was overcome by the loneliness of it all. I came prepared to evade security. But there were no humans here. Not one.

Despite recent struggles, iron mining remains the most productive industry here along Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Range. The ability to mine low-grade iron ore once regarded as waste has expanded the life of Iron Range mining into a new century, perhaps beyond. In fact, the region can produce almost as much iron ore now as it did during the taconite heyday of the 1970s.

It can, but it typically doesn’t.

Two truths weigh on our relationship with iron mining. Mining today requires a small fraction of the workers needed 50 years ago. Extracting low-grade ore also creates far more waste product. This is the rocky byproducts of iron ore production that companies pile along the edges of their pits or douse in those massive tailings ponds. Mining companies spend vast time, energy and money to make market-ready products while also mitigating the environmental impacts of the waste rock.

This is an impressive, Herculean effort — one that many consummate local professionals enable each day — but one that leaves the industry more sensitive to the tiniest market fluctuations.

But that’s not the only challenge local communities face in planning for the future of the region’s biggest industry.

A new paper written by Michigan Tech researchers John Baeten, Nancy Langston, and Don Lafreniere explores the implications of the prodigious rise of tailings in low-grade iron mining. “A geospatial approach to uncovering the hidden waste footprint of Lake Superior’s Mesabi Iron Range” was published this fall in the journal “The Extractive Industries and Society.”

“Today, a tremendous volume of open-pit mines and mine waste account for an area larger than the Mesabi’s iron formation itself,” writes Baeten and the others. “Viewed from above, the Mesabi Range appears as a vast assortment of amorphous brown islands among a sea of green vegetation.”

I can see the magazine cover now: “The Good Life on the Amorphous Brown Islands.”

Locals know well that former mining land can be repurposed in many ways. Pit lakes can become recreational and residential hot spots. New developments can grow atop mine waste. The Laurentian Vision Partnership — a confederation of mining, government and community organizations — exists to encourage that very purpose.

Yet the amount of waste rock produced in mining is creating mine dumps far faster than the mines themselves create jobs. In fact, our communities shrink as the overburden piles grow. Given current mining patterns, we’re only 10-20 years from some Mesabi taconite plants reaching the end of their prescribed lifespans.

When the jobs are done, the tailing ponds and waste rock mountains will remain. The IRRRB promises resources to help return land like this to nature and human development alike. Yet, as the paper points out, the amount of land affected by waste rock is 25 percent bigger than the iron formation itself. This number grows each time you hear new blasting.

I often hear comments to this effect: “Can you imagine if modern regulations were around when the first mines came to the Iron Range? They never would have opened!”

What Baeten and his colleagues show in the paper is that early mines on the Mesabi produced minuscule amounts of tailings by modern standards. There were environmental problems, to be sure, mostly owing to industrial practices of the time. But the act of mining natural ore was much less impactful than the processing involved in Iron Range ores now. Indeed, even today, our ore is better than much of the world’s. This problem faces all modern mining regions.

This writer often dedicates this column to talk of economic diversification. Thinking creatively, many possibilities exist for redevelopment of some of this land. But we’re not talking 40 acres, or 400 — we’re talking thousands of acres, including tailings basins that will require monitoring long after you and I are gone.

The word Mesabi roughly translates to “Sleeping Giant” in the original Ojibwa. This giant left big footprints on our landscape and in our economy. You can see them from space.

What can we do to fill them?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Gray Camp says:

    Yes – mining used to employ more people. Yes – more waste rock is created now that we are mining lower ore concentrations. Maybe these things were not what we signed up for as a region when we “hitched our wagon” to the mining industry. Maybe from time to time our region should evaluate whether the pluses of mining still outweigh the negatives? Is it worth the several billion dollars per year economic impact to the region to keep mining? Do we even have an option to stop mining if we wanted to? Is it worth dedicating 45 square miles of our 13,000 square mile taconite tax region to tailings basins? Would it be easier to have legitimate conversations if our region was more diversified and not as economically dependent on mining? I’m willing to bet the region would still re-up for mining.

  2. It boggles my mind how people living here don’t seem to realize the impact of taconite mining on the land. When driving into Virginia from the Eveleth direction, the entire back landscape consists of the waste rock piles of Minntac. Meanwhile HibTac is edging in on Chisholm and Hibbing. Nothing is sacred. Everything last inch of mine-feasible taconite has to be blasted apart. How many jobs is that per acre, and for how long?
    The Laurentian Vision Partnership is a pipe dream. Are we really going to use taconite pits for fishing lakes and waste rock piles for development? It would centuries for enough top soil to develop to even grow a forest. And the state is ultimately going to be responsible for monitoring and maintaining taconite tailings basins forever, because the mining companies go bankrupt when there is no more rock to mine.
    The natural ore mining was a different scenario than taconite. Those of us who grew up here should know that.
    The worst part is that the push is now for opening up a sulfide mining range, starting with PolyMet. Copper-nickel sulfide mining would be much worse for two main reasons. (1) The ore is so low grade at less than 1% mineralization, resulting in 99% waste rock. Compare this to taconite at 25-30% mineralization. (2) The pollution–due to the sulfide ores–would be much greater than that of taconite mining. Even though we now know that taconite mining is creating a huge sulfate and mercury pollution problem–and because their isn’t a good fix, the legislature is simply changing the laws to allow for more pollution instead.
    What are we thinking? Or has mining so permeated our culture and our brains that we no longer think.
    We need immediate attention put toward winding down mining in northeast Minnesota and thinking of ourselves as a post-mining culture, and developing that. Otherwise, we face a future of nothing but gigantic holes in the ground, waste rock piles, and tailings basins. Or rather, that is the future that our grandchildren will face.

    • David Gray says:

      It is a form of insanity to willfully wind down any reasonable economic activity that produces jobs and wealth.

      • Gray Camp says:

        What should the region do instead? It seems premature to force all the mines to shut down when some of them have 40-50 years of life left.

        • David Gray says:

          You should pursue all reasonable avenues for economic growth and jobs, not shut one down because of ideologically based irrationality.

          • Gray Camp says:

            I guess I mis-interpreted your first post. I thought you were saying we should stop mining.

    • Gray Camp says:

      I am actually surprised the taconite mines are not more noticeable. Sure I know they are surrounding the range, and you see signs of them on 169 or 53 when you drive, but walking around pretty much any town or city on the range, it is easy to lose track that you are in a community surrounded by mines. Sulfate pollution has been somewhat proven to be nullified by chemical reactions with iron in the soil. People eat fish out of most of the lakes and rivers around here without fear of mercury. Sure there have been some high profile road relocations lately which are making the mining operations more noticeable, but for the most part mining is mostly out of sight. We obviously need to be diversifying the range economies for the inevitable mine shut downs, but I struggle to say that we are doing a significant amount more harm by continuing to mine until the ore runs out, especially when it is having a multi-billion dollar per year impact on our regional economy.

  3. It really a shame people like Elanne don’t understand the enormous positive impact Minnesota mining has had on millions of peoples lives..Sad.

  4. Thank you, Elanne.

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