Two years ago, the United Taconite (UTAC) mine and processing plant were idled, along with about 50 percent of its Iron Range peers. A year later, a plan to re-start the UTAC facilities was unveiled. Today, the Eveleth mine and Forbes mill are bustling with activity.
“We have much to celebrate,” UTAC General Manager Santi Romani said at a Tuesday celebration at the processing plant. “This is a very important milestone.”
Nine months ago, UTAC began work on new and repurposed facilities designed to manufacture a unique product – the Mustang taconite pellet. It offers a mix of iron ore, dolomite and limestone specifically designed for its customer, ArcelorMittal. Cliffs Natural Resources, which owns UTAC, invested $75 million on infrastructure to make the pellet, which will feed the steelmaker’s Indiana Harbor East blast furnace, the largest one in the United States.
“I’m very, very proud to say we have produced the Mustang pellet on time and on budget,” said Chad Asgaard, who led the project and will succeed Romani as UTAC general manager when Romani retires. About 250 people were employed during the peak of construction, which was a joint effort between Cliffs and Lakehead Constructors. He dubbed the rapid effort “an absolutely unbelievable and unheard-of achievement.” The first pellet shipment to ArcelorMittal will occur on Friday.
“You have kept your promises. You said the minute you could re-open and expand, you would do it. I think we see the fruits of your labor. You are fearless,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said at the celebration. Seventeen months ago, she noted, the entire iron mining industry was at risk because foreign companies were flooding the U.S. market with cheap steel that violated trade rules. Cliffs worked jointly with government officials to impose tariffs, re-opening mines, Klobuchar said.
“Mining, iron ore and steel are the backbone of our nation’s economy, and they are the backbone of our national security. We are back on track again and this time we are going to keep on track,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. “Hats off to Cliffs!”
He credited Cliffs’ Board Chair, President and CEO Lourenco Goncalves for providing direction that led the industry’s rebound. Goncalves convinced public officials to bring their case directly to then-President Barack Obama’s staff. As a result, the federal government imposed the appropriate tariffs, Nolan said.
“Lorenco – you have given us jobs, you have given us hope. You have given us a future. Thank God for the day you moved from Brazil to America. God, we love ya,” Nolan said.
“By all accounts, this project has been a stunning success and is exceeding all expectations in regard to quality,” added Brian Zarn, president of Local 6860 of the United Steelworkers, which represents unionized UTAC employees.
Goncalves said Cliffs wants to continue growing the iron ore business. He reiterated the company’s desire to build a hot-briquetted iron (HBI) plant in Northern Minnesota, and said the company has a proven track record of delivering on its promises. But that can only happen, he later said at a news conference, if people strongly support Cliffs’ effort to obtain high-grade ore available in Nashwauk.
The fate of that ore body is tied up in court as a result of the Essar Steel Minnesota bankruptcy. A preliminary decision has been made to allow an international consortium of companies to take over the project.
Goncalves said there’s a narrow window of opportunity for Cliffs to build a new HBI plant, which is estimated to cost $700 million. Waiting for a favorable court ruling is not an option, he explained. Without the Nashwauk ore, Cliffs likely will develop its first HBI plant elsewhere in the Great Lakes region, Goncalves said.