PolyMet permitting caps years of hard work

Jon Cherry was impressed by the assets left behind in the former LTV plant that would be repurposed for PolyMet.

The PolyMet nonferrous mine project near Hoyt Lakes was pretty much on life support in 2012. And its prognosis was bleak after the federal EPA rejected as “inadequate” an initial Environmental Impact Statement in 2009.

“We were down in the mouth at that time,” Al Hodnik said in a recent interview regarding the PolyMet board’s sentiment at the time.

Hodnik, the board chairman, president and CEO of Allete Inc., had joined the board just after the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision.

Five years of permitting work had yielded a rejection. 

“A change in leadership was needed. We had to identify and recruit someone who had permitted such a mine before,” Hodnik said.

Jon Cherry, who was with Rio Tinto at the time and in the middle of helping develop and permit the Eagle nonferrous mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near Marquette, was the board’s choice.

“I could count on one hand someone who had permitted such a mine that no one had ever done before in Minnesota. We had been set back on the permitting journey. We needed to get Jon to come,” Hodnik said.

A Minnesota Twins season ticket holder at the Target ballpark, which had opened in 2011, Hodnik had penciled into his schedule a four-game series with the Oakland A’s in the summer of 2012. But he gave up those tickets to travel to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to pick up Cherry and serve as his tour guide of the Iron Range and former LTV Mining site, while making a relentless pitch for him to take the PolyMet job and then return him to the airport.

“I was his Uber driver before there was Uber,” Hodnik said.

The trip was successful. A few weeks later Cherry had inked a contract. He was the new PolyMet CEO.

Cherry said the more than six hours together on the road and their conversations during that time were critical in his decision to take the PolyMet job.

“I had a great chat with Al about the project and community. Al’s view on what it meant to do it right was in line with my own core values to make sure the community was a big part in doing it and doing it right.

“I had read about the project online and was interested because the directors had the same view like I do. Al exemplified that and was a big reason for my decision,” Cherry said.

Hodnik took Cherry first to the core Iron Range taconite plants in the Quad Cities area of Virginia, Mountain Iron, Eveleth and Gilbert, then drove to the Aurora and Hoyt Lakes area, which had been devastated by LTV closing in 2000.

Hodnik said Cherry was impressed when they visited the former LTV plant that would be repurposed as part of PolyMet.

“Jon saw the assets and was amazed at the bones of the place. He went, ‘Holy cow, there’s a lot here.’

“We looked over maps and spent time on permitting and he got a better sense of the company. He was very, very impressed,” Hodnik said. “We talked about other things in the car. He got a sense of the values-minded people.”

And the CEO of Allete, which includes the Duluth-based Minnesota Power, provided that information directly to Cherry as they drove from the Range to Cloquet, along I-35W and to the Twin Cities’ airport.

“When asked why I got on the board, I said there were three principal reasons and electric power sales was fourth on my list of three. Also, I do not believe in exporting my conscience to a Third World country. I see so many people willing to do that,” he said, regarding other countries that have the same minerals in the NorthMet deposit but without child labor or environmental protections.

Hodnik then cited his very personal and emotional connection to the project.

“Aurora, Hoyt Lakes and the East Range were brought to their knees and people didn’t see a future. As a former mayor of Aurora, if I can help bring a better future back I’m going to do it,” he said.

The two CEOs sized each other up early on what would be a long day together — Hodnik left the Range for the airport at about 4 a.m. on a Saturday and didn’t get back until midnight. And that went well.

“I think I get a pretty good read of talent. We knew he was a good engineer. He could do the math. But I was really impressed from the start with his external side. 

“He made all the right good impressions. He’s a straight shooter, that was clear,” Hodnik said.

“I talked with Al about how he runs his company. He’s a great example of what a CEO should be,” Cherry said.

Hodnik had put the full-court press on to get Cherry on board.

“I think he finally said, ‘Where do I sign just to get away from you,’” the Allete CEO said with a hearty laugh.

Now, nearly seven years later, the $945 million PolyMet project is one permit away from the final go-ahead to construction and production. And that permit, dealing with wetlands, will soon be granted by federal officials once the partial government shutdown ends, according to Hodnik.

“We were ultimately so relieved and pleased that Jon would take the lead on the project. And I think Washington and the DNR were also quite pleased and impressed. His reputation for doing things the right way had preceded him,” Hodnik said.

“I don’t regret for a second the decision, or the gas for the long drive down and back and then back again. Or the Twins games missed.”

Cherry laughed when informed that Hodnik had passed on the Twins’ weekend of games.

“Well, hopefully he’s satisfied and feels it was worth it,” Cherry said.

And how’d the games go? The Minnesota Twins got swept. 

Business North Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a reporter and executive editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.