Companies crowd to mine newly viable West Range iron ore

Mines dumps, or reject piles, like these have dotted the Iron Range landscape for a century, but are now hot commodities in a boom to restore “red ore” mining in Minnesota. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Last week, I met someone who knew my writing and he was shocked to see that I was “young.” I put “young” in quotation marks because it’s a relative term. I think in this case he was really saying that he was surprised that I wasn’t old, because he figured I would be. 

It’s true, I write a lot about Iron Range history. Weave enough references to “the old days” into your writing and people figure you’re old too. 

Fact is, I was born in 1979. So, I’m young to a boomer and old to a zoomer. It also means that I grew up in the midst of iron ore dumps that dominated Iron Range scenery. By the time I was old enough to think about such things, many of the dumps were covered by trees. These were weird topographical features, to be sure. But they were there, and you get used to things that are there.

But what if they weren’t there?

In geological terms, these things are not old. And it would appear that, quite soon, they won’t be here anymore.

Today, I have a new piece in the Minnesota Reformer: “Reclaimed ore, high prices spark mining scramble on the western Mesabi Iron Range.”

The western Mesabi, where I now live, is the forgotten part of the Range. Mining here stopped decades ago, mostly because the iron mining industry converted from non-magnetic hematite to magnetic taconite and there wasn’t as much taconite over here. In fact, a lot of those mine dumps are just unprocessed hematite that piled up when companies didn’t know what to do with all the old stuff.

I’ve written about scram mining many times, from Magnetation’s rise and fall, to other more recent failed efforts. So, you’d be right to be skeptical about the fact that I’m here to do so again. But high iron prices and continued interest keep these ideas alive.

At last week’s meeting of the Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board, I learned a series of facts that, even separately, would be pretty surprising. Taken together, one can imagine a lot of change happening relatively quickly.

  • A new firm, the Calumet Reclamation Company, wants to process several iron waste piles around Calumet for rich hematite ore.
  • Then, they want to ship it to a new pig iron plant in North Dakota.
  • The same firm wants to excavate the site of the Hill Annex Mine State Park while dewatering the deep pit there for more mining activity.
  • This means the end of the Hill-Annex Mine State Park, but also the beginning of a scrum for iron ore in a narrow formation that connects Nashwauk to Calumet.
  • Cleveland-Cliffs also wants to mine a narrow but very deep swath of taconite ore from Calumet to Nashwauk. This plan will keep Hibbing Taconite alive for several decades.
  • Cliffs, Mesabi Metallics, MagIron, and Calumet Reclamation each propose plans that practically overlap. Will all these projects create a boom, or will the legal and logistical concerns create more confusion and delay?

You can learn more, a lot more, in my story at the Minnesota Reformer.


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