Crowd questions Mesabi Metallics in tense meeting

The scene inside the Nashwauk Township Community Center on Sept. 24, 2018 (PHOTO: screenshot from WDIO-TV)

Hundreds packed the Nashwauk Township Community Center Monday night to ask questions of Gov. Mark Dayton, state officials and the CEO of Mesabi Metallics.

The governor called the town hall meeting after months of local criticism. A proposal to build a new mine on the site of the long defunct Butler Taconite site once carried the hopes of the western Mesabi Iron Range. Now it has become a blinding fog of financing woes, disappointment, and delay.

But Gary Heasley, CEO of the current iteration of Mesabi Metallics, says those days are behind us. Next March he aims to resume construction on the long dormant plant left rusting in the elements by past management.

What Heasley did not possess, according to sources at the meeting, was direct answers to tough questions. We still don’t know how much money the company has, who its customers will be, or whether the new plant will use union labor.

And while the assembled masses seemed to have little use for Heasley and Mesabi Metallics, they directed the most pointed barbs at the governor. Different people accused Dayton of going back on promises.

Gov. Dayton answers a pointed question during Monday’s public meeting in Nashwauk Township. (PHOTO: screeenshot from WDIO)

Gov. Dayton, nearing the end of a long career in Minnesota politics, wasn’t having it.

The quote everyone ran with:

“My honesty and integrity means a lot to me. And I’ve spent 40-plus years up here doing every goddamn thing I could to bring jobs to the Iron Range with one exception — Twin Metals. Everything else I’ve supported. Everything else I’ve done, within the law, whatever I could.”

It was a raw moment in a tense meeting.

At issue is the ongoing rivalry between Mesabi Metallics and Cleveland-Cliffs. Mesabi Metallics wants to finish the project that was started, essentially a taconite plant with an option on value-added products in the future. Cliffs wants the ore first. Other mines on the Iron Range need it. Cliffs then wants to build an entirely different hot-briquetted iron (HBI) plant on the property and maybe a pellet plant in the future.

Cliffs and its outspoken CEO Lourenco Goncalves clearly held the loyalty of the crowd. The company’s talking points seemed to dictate the conversation.

Dayton reiterated that the state can’t simply hand the mining permits that Mesabi Metallics currently holds to Cliffs, no matter how much people want them to. The state can’t dictate the terms of federal bankruptcy proceedings. Cliffs would have to apply for its own permits to mine the land it bought throughout the Nashwauk site.

Or, Dayton said, they could buy Mesabi Metallics. But that’s something Goncalves has outright refused to do.

It’s a stalemate, again. Metallics will have a chance to develop their property next spring. If they fail, this will all head back to bankruptcy court, again.

Despite the will of the crowd, the legal process seems to bar any shortcuts. Private companies could intervene with their wallets, if they so chose.

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