Implicatons of a new era for Range mining industry

On Tuesday, the Iron Range Resources board held a special meeting to approve a new structure for a loan to the Minnesota Steel project as it enters the final stages of its purchase by India-based Essar Steel. (Today’s Mesabi Daily News details the deal). This is seen as the final hurdle in the private financing, which when complete would allow construction on the fully funded and permitted iron mining and steel production facility in Nashwauk.

This project is important for many reasons, both real and symbolic. It hasn’t generated as much controversy as the proposed power plant near the town of Taconite, but I have Iron Range friends who strongly support and oppose the steel plant, too.

First, this will be the first time our iron products on the Mesabi Range are turned into steel right here. We’ve always shipped iron ore and taconite East to be processed into steel by parent companies. Best case, this means the steel industry has become as efficient as possible and that these jobs will be more secure than others like them. Worst case, we find out that making steel here is too expensive to compete on the world marketplace. I hope for the first possibility.

Second, this facility will be built over the footprint of the former Butler Taconite plant, which was the first taconite plant to close during the Range depression of the 1980s — a dark economic time from which the region has never fully recovered. In a way, this project could symbolize our survival of the near deadly blow we took back then.

And third, this project represents the preservation and modernization of our mining economy for several decades into the future. We are committing to another generation of mining in northern Minnesota. This is good for the economy, in the short term at least, but carries other possibly negative consequences. A report by a University of Montana geography professor indicates that the mining industry on the Range isn’t as vital to our economic health as it once was and that our natural beauty and quality of life is more important to our future than sustained mining jobs. I encourage you to read the report. On par with the environmental implications, perhaps even more important, is the risk of once again becoming complacent during strong economic times and failing to prepare for a future that will rely on service industries and telecommuting — both of which require strong communities, better infrastructure and quality public schools in particular.

Fundamentally, we’re not ready to abandon mining as the central driver of our local economy. I do, however, believe we need to do more to prepare for a post-mining economy. Minnesota Steel, Mesabi Nugget and technological advances in traditional taconite mining will buy us 20-50 years of average to above-average economic conditions, with some probable down years. If we waste that time and the resulting financial resources we will not get a second (or in our case third or fourth) chance. As an Iron Ranger, I’ve come to terms with the damage we’ve done to the landscape of this region. After all, we can’t turn the mine dumps and pits into the forests they once were. But I also believe we must not needlessly or carelessly damage the natural beauty we have left. It’s time for a responsible balance. That’s why we should support projects that use abandoned industrial space and protect natural areas that future generations can enjoy when mining truly is exhausted on the Iron Range.

Into the future we go. Let’s go with our eyes open and our imagination working.

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