New CEO, pilot plant highlight Prairie River Minerals activity

Old iron ore stockpiles like this one at the Lind-Greenway pit still contain viable iron ore that newer steel mills can use. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

The iron ore industry forges ahead despite global economic recession. As evidence, one new northern Minnesota scram mining company will break ground later this month.

Prairie River Minerals, LLC, told WDIO this week that it would begin constructing a pilot plant near Coleraine soon. The company will process old hematite stockpiles from earlier days of Iron Range mining into lump and sinter ores. These types of iron ore serve a specific purpose in making different kinds of steel.

I wrote about Prairie River Minerals about this time last year while the company built its plan to mine stockpiles on the western Mesabi Range. I wrote an update last June. But there’s been one big change since then.

Larry Sutherland recently retired as the general manager of U.S. Steel’s Minntac mine in Mountain Iron. Now he’s signed on as the CEO of Prairie River Minerals. This move serves as notice that the project is moving out of the planning stages into reality.

This pilot plant will start small. According to Sutherland, just a couple dozen workers will staff it at first, coupled with some additional contractors. The point is to demonstrate the company’s dense media separator as being commercially viable.

The taconite age on the Mesabi Range also began small with a pilot plant before booming in the late 1960s and ’70s. This sort of mine will never scale that big, however.

Prairie River Minerals wrestles with the ghost of Magnetation, another scram operation that went bankrupt after 2015-2016 steel industry downturn. That company’s major fault was scaling up too big, too soon, leaving it financially vulnerable.

PRM acquired some of the former Magnetation properties in Itasca County where these stockpiles are located.

One lingering doubt for Prairie River Minerals and all mining concerns on the Mesabi is the potential for dropping iron ore prices and demand. Right now both are high enough to merit cautious optimism. But no one knows what the economic damage of the COVID-19 crisis will be over the next year.

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