Workforce remains concerned about facility's long-term future 

Iron ore pellets will in a few days be traveling through Hibbing Taconite Co. furnaces. Pellet production begins this weekend, said Chris Johnson, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2705.

“It takes a couple of days to warm up the furnaces,” said Johnson. “We're thinking pellet production will probably begin Saturday night or Sunday.”

Operations at the iron ore plant were idled in early May due to the national economic downturn.

As of Sunday, all 600 USW members eligible to return to work at Hibbing Taconite were back on the job, said Johnson. However, during the idling about 15-20 USW members either retired or decided to move on to other jobs, he said.

“We lost some to other jobs because of our mine life outlook and some retired,” said Johnson. “In talking to the other mines, they're getting some Keetac people and some of ours. It's a competitive market out there for these jobs and I don't blame our guys. They're looking out for their families.”      

Hibbing Taconite is the second largest iron ore pellet producer in Minnesota.  But the facility is in danger of running out of crude ore. Without new ore reserves, the mine could run out of ore in the first quarter of 2025, Johnson said.

USW members are becoming increasingly concerned about the future of the plant and their jobs, said Johnson 

“We keep telling them we're going to lose more and more (workers),” he said.

ArcelorMittal is majority owner and manager of Hibbing Taconite. U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs also hold ownership.

Company officials say the plant is expected to run at full capacity for the remainder of the year. That would mean a total 2020 production of about five million tons, down from a typical 7.8 million-ton annual production level, he noted. 

The Hibbing Taconite restart, coupled with the recent start-up of two idle pelletizing lines at U.S. Steel's Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron, are big economic boosts, said Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.

“Anytime a mine comes off an idle, it's a positive sign for the industry and the region,” she said. “Each mining job creates two jobs in other vendor businesses, so when the mines are doing well, the region's economy is doing well too.”  

Nationally, raw steel production inched up for the week ending July 25 with 1,320,000 net tons produced at a steel mill capability utilization rate of 58.9%, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.

It's a small increase of 1.1 percent in steel production from the previous week, but both domestic steel production and the capability utilization rate have in recent weeks been trending upward. 

“For the most part, everyone is going to be out there making as much as we can,” Chris Johnson said of Hibbing Taconite.