Iron Range mines must modernize to survive

Direct-reduced iron pellets

Direct-reduced iron pellets

As the iron mining and steel industries gird for a hard year of low prices and intense international competition, iron mining executives and academics meet in Duluth this week for the Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME) Minnesota conference.

WDIO reported on the Tuesday keynote by Don Fosnacht, director of the Center for Applied Research and Technology Development at UMD’s NRRI. Fosnacht echoed what I wrote last week and that, frankly, has been pretty common knowledge for years: fewer steel mills are using blast furnaces that use taconite pellets, more use electric arc furnaces that require higher grade direct-reduced iron pellets.

In other words, when Range mining giants Cliffs and U.S. Steel talk about exploring DRI, they are describing a survival strategy, not light remodeling. This will require major private investment in our mines at a time when iron ore is selling at historically low prices. That’s a tough needle to thread.

Taconite pellets

Taconite pellets

Then there are quotes from the WDIO story like this:

The 2015 SME president, Steven Gardner, said that one of the group’s goals for the year is to improve the public’s perception of mining. “You need to be an activist for mining. Use social media. Talk to your friends. Get involved politically.”

Because … that hasn’t been happening already (yard signs, TV commercials)? Because … that will raise the price of iron ore? I take a dim view of those who try to assuage fears by demanding loyalty.

Keewatin Taconite and MinnTac aren’t idling this summer because we didn’t snap our fingers loudly enough to keep Tinkerbell alive. The industry must modernize to survive, and so must our Iron Range communities. Both face de facto extinction without action.

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