The hard lessons behind those leases

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

The only proper response to a mistake is to learn from it.

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommended that Cleveland Cliffs receive state mineral leases once held by Mesabi Metallics, a group loosely connected to the investors behind Essar Steel. The iron ore in question lies outside Nashwauk near the former site of Butler Taconite. The state executive council must approve the recommendation May 25 for it to be official, but that’s considered a formality.

For two decades, that ore was promoted as the future of iron mining and steelmaking. In 2008, amid a global economic downtown just months before a major U.S. election, Essar Steel broke ground on a processing plant that remains unfinished.

Back then, members of both parties scrambled to do Essar’s bidding. At the groundbreaking, GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty stood alongside DFL lawmakers and every local politician who could elbow into the picture.

Today, Democratic-Farmer-Laborites and the newly-elected Iron Range Republican majority similarly celebrate the state mineral leases being awarded to Cleveland Cliffs. But the current celebration is a relief, not a windfall. Hibbing Taconite faces the end of its mine life. It now has enough ore to stay open. No new jobs. No advanced steelmaking technology, at least not yet.

It reminds me of that old Howie Mandel game show, “Deal or No Deal.” When the contestants start picking briefcases, they all think they’ll end up with $1 million. An offer of $100,000? Chump change. No deal. But then the game takes a turn and they’re grubbing for 10 grand. Sometimes they get nothing at all.

The Iron Range is lucky that Hibbing Taconite receives a new ore supply. But that does not absolve our region from learning an important lesson from the events of the past 15 years.

On June 8, 2008 I wrote a column for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, ancestor of Mesabi Tribune, entitled “Steel Barons of the 21st Century.” It was the only column I ever submitted that was initially rejected, in this case because Essar officials were going to be in town the week it ran. With some minor edits, it ran the next week.

Here’s what I said:

“Fact is, corporations – whether Indian like Essar or American like Cleveland Cliffs – conduct operations here on the Iron Range because they need our ore to do business,” I wrote in 2008. “Business comes first; the real estate market in Keewatin, the fate of Greenway schools and the health of our small business sector are far more distant concerns to the people who run these companies.”

See if the next part sounds familiar.

“What was true of the Range in 1908 remains true in 2008,” I said then. “The powerful play chess with our lives so long as we let them. Strip away development dollars, speculative pricing and the bevy of consultants whispering in our ears and you will find a familiar group of people at the heart of the Iron Range. They are the same people we see at the café, the bar, the gas station, the bank or walking down Main Street. They are us.

“While it may be true that we should have patience in regard to coming steel plant or any number of other job creation projects, we must not wait for our futures to materialize,” I concluded. “We need to explore ideas, create homegrown growth and teach our children this new lesson: good things come to those who dream, think and work.”

Recent news coverage about the mineral leases skewed toward the assumption that these mineral leases will guarantee economic strength for the Range. We know from our present condition that this isn’t true. We’re just lucky things aren’t getting worse.

Meanwhile, we risk repeating a mistake by not asking questions.

How is the ore from Nashwauk going to be transported to Hibbing? By truck, rail or conveyors? On the roads?

What happens to the half-billion dollar Essar colossus rusting in the fields outside Nashwauk? This includes tens of millions in state infrastructure resources.

How does this development serve the transition toward new methods of producing domestic steel currently reordering the industry? Are we just serving the waning decade of blast furnaces?

Finally, what is our vision for the future of the Iron Range? Does that vision match the reality of the industries we hope to see thrive?

To learn, we must ask these questions and understand the answers. We also must heed what people have been saying not just since 2008, but for the past century. It’s time to build communities that will outlast the final mine, no matter how soon or distant that day might be.

Others won’t do it for us. Only we can.

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, May 13, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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