U of M seeks another chance to revolutionize mining

Hull Rust Mine view, 2013 (PHOTO:

The view of the Hull Rust Mine pit in June 2013. (PHOTO, ndwick, Flickr Creative Commons)

The story of mining on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range is sometimes mischaracterized as the simple story of some guys finding the richest supply of iron in the world followed by generations of mining. There have been some dramatic twists involving high finance by Rockefeller and Carnegie, political alliances between old foes to pass the 1964 Taconite Amendment, and — like any good story — academic research that pumps billions of dollars into the economy, saving towns from certain death … for now.

John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune reported in Sunday’s paper about the University of Minnesota’s push to request funding from the legislature this winter to resume research that could revolutionize the state’s rapidly changing mining industry.

As Myers reminds us, the University had been center stage in creating the Taconite Era of the Modern Iron Range:

Now, university officials propose the school’s biggest mining-focused push since [professor E.W.] Davis invented the processes to separate and concentrate taconite iron ore. That process, perfected in the 1950s, has added a half-century of life to the state’s mining industry after the state’s rich natural iron ore was depleted.

Davis once famously said that the ore beneath the towns of the Iron Range would be the death of those towns when it ran out, but then was the central figure in adding a century of life to those towns, although through a process that required far fewer workers and that has become increasingly automated in recent decades.

[U of M Vice President of Research Brian] Herman said the effort will bring researchers from the Twin Cities campus together with UMD, NRRI and even the Morris campus to focus on four or five key areas to “optimize extraction” and “minimize environmental and human health impacts of mining.” Those are include “characterization” of geology, not only to pinpoint valuable ores but also determine the pollution potential of the surrounding rock; resource recovery, including new mining techniques to recover valuable ore from waste products; pollution prevention, especially minimizing waste created in the mining process; and new treatment technologies of any mining waste that can’t be avoided.

“Can we deliver or develop technologies to mitigate acid mine drainage and sulfate?” Herman asked. If so, he added, that not only would help promote Minnesota mining but could create water treatment technologies that could be used worldwide to help people in need of safe drinking water.

Once can sense a bit of cautious skepticism in the quotes of industry types, but on the other hand you can also see how technology like what Herman describes could improve the prospects and perhaps minimize the impacts of current and new mining projects in Northern Minnesota.


  1. So is this an admission that sulfide mining will create acid mine drainage? And that sulfates are already a huge problem due to current mining?

  2. Travis Ryder says

    Even the Morris campus? Oh my! They do have good geology and environmental studies programs. Warms my heart.

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