Pressure, time, and the tricky business of hope

Construction at Essar Steel near Nashwauk, Minnesota, as seen May 2015. (Aaron J. Brown)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

Pressure and time. That’s how minerals concentrate into ore formations beneath the earth. You might learn this in a geology class. But pressure and time also explain how humans extract those ores. Now we’re talking economics, the kind that affects our lives here on the Mesabi Iron Range.

This spring brings an avalanche of news regarding iron mining, still the Range’s biggest industry in terms of gross domestic product.

For instance, an ongoing economic recovery is fueling historic demand for iron ore and other commodities as production ramps up in the U.S. manufacturing industry. This fact is plainly visible. Go to any local car dealer and observe their difficulty in acquiring enough vehicles to meet demand. The wait for large household appliances like washers, dryers, and ovens also grows longer. Steel, wood, and composite materials fetch a king’s ransom everywhere you look.

In seemingly unrelated news, the State of Minnesota recently announced it would strip Mesabi Metallics of mineral leases on state land near Nashwauk. The company, largely controlled by some of the same Essar Steel officials who declared bankruptcy ten years ago, failed to meet established benchmarks by a May 1 deadline. In essence, Mesabi Metallics couldn’t produce evidence that it had raised $200 million.

Local lawmakers and Steelworkers union officials broadly applauded the state’s intervention after the failure of Mesabi Metallics. They believe Cleveland-Cliffs, with a longstanding presence on the Range, will be a better fit to mine the ore at the former Butler Taconite plant that closed in 1985. But this comes at a price.

This marks the end of hopes for an integrated iron mining and steel-making facility on the Mesabi. This hope had been kindled by two generations of public officials and speculators since Butler shut down. This all began when I was a small boy, coinciding with my family’s own bankruptcy and veritable exile from Nashwauk to a lonely expanse of low priced swampland in the Sax-Zim bog. 

Nevertheless, the tempering of hope provides good news for Hibbing Taconite, a Cliffs-run mine racing toward the end of its natural mine life. Though Cliffs hasn’t said how it plans to keep Hibbing Taconite operating, its plans certainly include the company’s activities in Nashwauk.

Remember, Cliffs was no passive observer in the fall of Mesabi Metallics. Sensing opportunity, the company acquired land critical to the former Essar mining plan. One of the reasons Mesabi Metallics couldn’t raise $200 million was because the fast-charging Cliffs had so asserted itself. 

We might hope that news of super-charged steel markets and continued life at Hibbing Taconite might spur one of the Iron Range’s classic “booms.” We certainly see local taconite plans running hot. But the last 40 years of consolidation and automation mutes all booms. Prosperity in mining affects a smaller number of workers with less direct impact on local communities. Our economy is fundamentally different than the one that existed during the original taconite boom of the 1970s.

Our schools still need more students if they are to afford advanced curriculum and specialized career training. Local businesses always run near the margins. This isn’t just because of ups and downs in mining. Rather, how people buy goods and consume services has completely changed. Statistically, most Iron Rangers are, at this very moment, either trying to figure out how to pay for long term care for themselves or an elderly relative, or child care while a parent works a low wage job. The prices for these services have risen far faster than steel or lumber.

This pressure, over time, applied to families in these situations creates stress that must be relieved for our region to truly thrive.

It’s clear that Cleveland-Cliffs affected the change they desired in the Nashwauk situation. That ore will be spoken for soon, and likely conveyed to Hibbing for processing. This will save hundreds of jobs, a good thing.

But it’s also a reminder about hope, at least as it relates to the economics of mining. In the mining game, hope becomes the most volatile commodity of all. Hope is a penny stock, a dry well, and a spent mine all in one. The only true hope in mining is value. And unless you own the mine, value only manifests as employment and tax revenue. Both of these are finitely capped by the pressure and time of 100 years of mining politics on the Iron Range.

So let us, at least those of us who are not mining executives, think of our Iron Range communities in terms of value. Merely hoping for our local economy to improve will do no good. We may literally spend a lifetime hoping for Minnesota Iron and Steel, Essar Steel, Mesabi Metallics, ERP, or Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory to fling open its doors on the edge of Nashwauk. 

We, the people, offer value to this changing world. Meaningful lifestyle, affordable real estate, skills that employers want. So let’s stop downgrading our value and instead add to it. We may apply our own pressure over time as we deploy a strategy of community-building, entrepreneurship and attraction. That is how real hope takes root.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, May 16, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. I am NOT happy that Cleveland Cliffs, who in my opinion, ruined any chance for another company to make it here, stepped in and bullied then so much that that no one can compete with them. Cleveland Cliffs to me is like the mafia….only THEY can run a mine here and they are going to make damn sure no one else can. I wish there was some penalty that we could charge them for screwing the whole thing up! NOW there will be no additional jobs added to our economy on the West range because of their SELFISH behavior!

    • You can’t be serious Karin… The Essar/Mesabi people are/were not serious people. The first front man, Tom Clarke, had already screwed Cleveland-Cliffs out of $40Million back when Cliffs was selling assets in order to avoid bankruptcy in 2014-2015. Sanjeev Gupta’s European Steel conglomerate (an Essar Associate) is unravelling as we speak and the taxpayer is getting stuck with the bill in the UK to keep the jobs at Liberty Steel afloat. The Mesabi crew has never been a real crew. It’s not Cliffs’ fault that they run a sham of an operation. I’m VERY PLEASED an American company that pays its workers over $100k/year average has an interest in high-grade ore to fuel a low-carbon steel future. Without steel we have no roads, rail, and ability to get food and energy up to the Range to provide the “human capital investments” that Aaron wants to make, and are needed for a diversified economy.

      I agree that Cliffs operates as monopolists, to an extent, but there would be an HBI plant in Nashwauk TODAY if the DNR and the Executive Council weren’t so fearful of litigation 4-5-6 years ago. And in NO WAY does Cliffs operate like the monopolists of Facebook, Google, etc…

      A brand new shiny $1B plant in Toledo, Ohio, today that is fed from the $100M+ upgrades to NorthShore in Silver Bay is evidence that Cliffs has been looking for the State to work with them, rather than thwart them. Ohio heard this call and responded. That’s leadership. Minnesota should try having a backbone rather than letting our sports teams’ loser mentality infect our politics. Nobody else in the Great Lakes region is building HBI. Just Cliffs. US Steel just cancelled a $1.5B upgrade to one of their facilities. Mesabi is just another false promise by a European/India/Chinese backed entity to reduce America’s self-sufficiency.

  2. Joe Musich says

    One again the range population comes to terms with “begin held hostage” The land has been grabbed and will only be used the way the captors wish it to be used. This is not a new lesson. It is the same one being repeated over and over again. It is go to read your encouraging words that therre could be a way out, But many of your neighbors it seems are doing what ever they can to maintain the “dependency.” There are two things that kept the few people and my family from leaving… a job and the land itself. Most made the choice to get out. The effort to go to tourism run up against those who maybe some time for who knows how long will have a job. If a person works 30 years and working only 20 of those where is the economic reward ? When I was teaching before retirment in Minneapolis many students had jobs at Target. That was until the worker got to a cetain number of hours. Then they usially were let go. I came to calll it the Target model of employment. The worker was is another widget. Until that sort view on an employee is either legislated away, or people discover fairness what can change. The falsehood of merit means nothing. Everything is disposable. Up there that extends to the Earth itself.

  3. Now USS is entering the picture. I see a trade between them and Cliffs for taconite land between Hibbing and Kelly Lake that USS controls and former Butler land that the state and Clffs controls.

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