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 MinnesotaBrown.com 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.