Grading on a curve

The color of the roads leading to new mines in the Congo indicate the quality of ore there. (PHOTO: Fairphone, Flickr-CC-BY-NC-SA)

When our boys were younger we went on vacation to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We took them to one of those old timey Gold Mine attractions where they got to pan for real gold in authentic local sludge from a nearby creek.

The tour guide told us we could keep any gold we found. He told fanciful stories of “a kid one time” who panned all day to collect a kid’s fortune in gold. Our son Doug was particularly attracted to notions of sudden wealth and spent longer than his brothers on the project. Ultimately hunger prompted him to abandon the venture. His souvenir gold flakes remain suspended in a tiny vial he keeps in his room, meager fortunes yet unrealized.

Historical research in mining uncovers a number of common sayings. One adage, often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, goes “A mine is nothing more than a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” This refers to the nature of mining speculation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But has the 21st century changed much? Speculation is just that. The point is that someone always profits from the idea of ore before the ore is actually mined, if it is mined at all.

Another common mining saying goes, “Grade is king.” Grade refers to the mineral content of the ores being mined. That came to mind when I read a recent resource report from PolyMet, one of the companies exploring northeastern Minnesota’s Duluth Complex for copper, nickel and other marketable ores. Their report also estimated access to a wide variety of other resources, including platinum, palladium, gold and silver.

High grade sources of these ores are becoming hard to find. That’s why mining companies now look to places like the Duluth Complex. The global average for grade has dropped significantly in recent decades. But in the case of this recent PolyMet resource report, all of the nearby minerals still run at or just below global averages for grade. If multi-billions are to be spent extracting new ores from northeastern Minnesota, they’d have to be handed over by investors unperturbed by this fact. I’d like to meet them.

In the long run, we might end up mining everything until the planet is a husk and we can’t find batteries for our air helmets. But assuming that better times will come before then, we must therefore estimate that mining companies will still mostly be concerned with profits.

In this, the United States, China and other world powers have eyes fixed on the deeply forested regions of western and central Africa, where ore grades on precious metals run much higher than the ores found here. Local political figures made much of reports that the U.S. government was forming agreements to gain access to minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Why not mine here? The answer: grade. The ore there is 400 percent more potent than ours. And as much concern as I share over the treatment of low-paid African laborers, I still imagine that mining companies spend much more time talking about grade than the plight of workers.

Higher grade ores aren’t just being found in undeveloped parts of the world. The government of Sweden recently announced the discovery of Europe’s largest deposit of rare earth minerals. Higher grade minerals will be mined before lower grade minerals. Same now as ever.

Some might assume, wrongly, that this is an anti-mining message. It’s not. This kind of conversation is happening now inside the offices of mining companies around the world. The decisions made there determine what happens here. Yes, Minnesota politics and the protestations of mining opponents matter, but not nearly as much as the grade of the actual minerals.

We shouldn’t be surprised. John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, and later J.P. Morgan and U.S. Steel, invested billions in the wilderness of the Mesabi Iron Range because of grade. For decades, the richest ore in the world came from right here.

And yet old timers remember when Brazil become a dominant supplier of iron ore on the world market after World War II. Their operations quickly dwarfed even our largest mines in northern Minnesota. Our conversion to taconite extended Minnesota’s iron mining industry into a new century, but mining people still fret constantly about grade.

Today, Brazil is only the world’s second-largest iron producer, even though it remains eight times more productive than the United States. Early this century, Australia became the world’s largest producer of iron, supplying vast quantities of ore to Asian markets. Today, the Aussies mine high-grade hematite, the same kind your grandpa mined here.

We know that the 1980s and ‘90s marked a noticeable decline in our local economy. Folks like to blame lots of factors — illegal imports, Ronald Reagan, environmentalists, greedy corporations — and maybe those are some worthy considerations. But the biggest factor? The availability of high grade ore elsewhere and more efficient ways to extract it.

When it comes to the minerals beneath our feet, we should have learned long ago not to count our metallic chickens before they hatch. Mining is part of a complex supply chain that produces the things we use everyday. The United States of America benefited greatly from Minnesota’s bounty of iron ore, far more than we did at the mouths of these mines.

Could we, and the country, one day benefit from the copper, nickel and other minerals found in the Duluth Complex? Absolutely. But that won’t happen just because we want the jobs, but rather because it’s profitable. Junior mining companies like PolyMet and Twin Metals have a vested interest in making it seem that way. In reality, they’re only packaging the projects for investment by real mining companies like Glencore and Antofagasta. Those companies say little and act cautiously, always hedging their investments to maintain control of the market.

Demand for metals will rise with the use of cleaner energy and transportation technology. But that doesn’t mean King Grade will lose its crown. Northern Minnesota’s resources do not currently represent a critical supply in the world economy. Not yet. And the reason is grade. These ores are either going to be an emergency supply during global conflict or “peaking” supply during times of very high demand. The prior would exhaust the ores quickly, the latter is nothing on which to hang our economic hats.

It is naïve to think that global industries and global companies will ever prioritize the interests of our local communities over the realities of their bottom line. They may toss us a bone, the way U.S. Steel and Cleveland Cliffs have over the years, but we all know — or should — that their generosity will stop when mining stops.

It only emphasizes the importance of ongoing efforts to diversify the Range economy, to capitalize on value-added iron ore production, and to attract new people, new families and new money to our region. To big companies we are a pin on the map. To succeed in the actual economy we need independence and self-determination, something no company will ever give us for free.

Why? Because our independence is too valuable and too dangerous. We might start thinking for ourselves.

Aaron J. Brown

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 Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Another good piece. Question: I have read that the reason steelmaking and metalworking were–at one time–established in Duluth is that Minnesota leaders demanded this as a condition of lowering taxes on mining. Is this so?

    • I can’t speak to the specifics. The U.S. Steel plant at Morgan Park in Duluth was designed in 1913 with construction and opening in the years that followed. WWI accelerated matters. This was before the big tax cuts on mining that would could over the years. The first big “win” for U.S. Steel on taxation was in 1921. But it’s possible that, years later, U.S. Steel dangled closing the plant as a way to extract promises. The “Roaring ’20s” ushered in a period of reduced tax load on mining that continued unabated to this day. Ultimately the Duluth mill closed anyway, mostly because it was not set up to handle the rise of taconite ores.

  2. Also the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The St. Louis river with both the steel plant and what is now Sappi in Cloquet was an anoxic, toxic soup. Fifty years after closing and they’re finally removing or capping sediment so toxic you couldn’t swim or run a boat through the area. There is a groundwater spring with perfectly clear water because nothing lives in it. We grew up in far west Duluth after the plant closed and lived through the same events as the Range, just a bit earlier. Another element for the Range was the Reagan tax law changes; post WW2 the tax rules were designed for full employment. (The middle class was created by Roosevelt reforms implemented during the war). The taconite mines were built and run at cost plus and that’s what ended in 81-82. The rest since then has been the usual corporate behavior and the LTV site having a two percent steeper slope for the ore bed. Many, not anyone here, also forget the amount of public subsidy and tax law changes that occurred. The process was a result of state funded research, and the production tax was also a giveaway that wedded government funding to mining.

  3. Always Minnesotan says

    Thank you Aaron. This was a more well-rounded and informative article than what I’ve seen in major newspapers in recent days, and a whole heck of a lot more logical/fact-based than most all of the skewed comments made by certain U.S. congressmen who bellow lies to their constituents via Facebook, Twitter, and short-on-facts cable news channels.

    These are the same congressman that ratchet division full throttle with statements that are so void of truth, you can’t even call them half truths, all while they line their campaign coffers with buckets of cash from mega mining companies. Politicians like these aren’t Minnesota nice although they paint themselves with a thin veneer of fake “good-guy Minnesota niceness.”

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