Boomtime coming on the Iron Range

Mine pit
The Iron Range is dotted with long closed mining pits. Some are off limits to the public because of dangerous, steep, vertical shorelines. Others, like the Larue Pit at the east end of Nashwauk, have become pleasant fishing spots or parks.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Ron Dicklich has a life of memories on the Iron Range. He grew up here, went on to the state Legislature, and now heads an association of Iron Range schools and cities. That's where we find him, in a quiet office above the bank, on a sleepy afternoon in Buhl.

The Iron Range
The outline of Minnesota's Iron Range.
MPR graphic/Betsy Cole

Dicklich's best memories include families and friends; the good times. But there were plenty of bad times too.

"The sad part is the memories of standing in the parking lot of Butler Taconite June 10, 1985, and shaking hands with the 400 people on that shift that day where they were leaving for the last time," Dicklich says.

In January 2001 it was LTV Steel Mining. The last time taconite pellet prices slumped, half of the state's mining companies went bankrupt, some mines closed production lines, or some shut down for weeks at a time.

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Ron Dicklich
Ron Dicklich heads the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, based in Buhl. He's a former state lawmaker and a former lobbyist for an Iron Range steel plant project.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

It's been a shrinking industry since the 1980s, and Dicklich says it's been felt across the Iron Range.

"When we went from 15,000 people in the steel industry to 5,000, that was 10,000 jobs gone," Dicklich says. "And back then, under the system, there was three jobs to every one in the taconite industry. We permanently lost 40,000 some people in this area."

But now, the Iron Range boom-and-bust economy may be barreling again toward boom -- at least a mini-boom that might help stabilize the Range for years to come. The list of possible new employers is still mostly on paper, but impressive.

It starts with Mesabi Nugget's proposed iron nugget plant near Hoyt Lakes, with 50 permanent jobs -- and more created quickly as production ramps up.

PolyMet Mining Corp. is close to a decision on a copper/nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. That's 400 permanent jobs for at least 20 years -- in addition to construction and spinoff jobs.

Downtown Hoyt Lakes
The sign near downtown Hoyt Lakes points to the LTV taconite plant, which closed five years ago.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Then, near Nashwauk, Minnesota Steel Industries proposes a new taconite mine, an iron plant, and the region's first steel plant, with 700 new jobs and another 2,100 spinoff jobs.

Near the town of Taconite, Excelsior Energy's Mesaba Energy Project would bring a large coal gasification power plant, with 100 full time jobs initially and plans to quickly expand. That plant would require up to 2,000 construction workers.

The list keeps going -- in a couple of years, Franconia Minerals could begin its underground copper/nickel mine with another 250 workers.

Other projects would bring fewer workers but more job stability -- like wood-fired power plants in Hibbing and Virginia; a large expansion at UMP-Blandin paper in Grand Rapids; a new physics detector and an advanced garbage-to-gas energy proposal for International Falls.

It's a lot of jobs and a lot of development in a short time. And that's got some folks concerned.

Tammen, left;  Hanson, right
Bob Tammen, left, is a Sierra Club member who lives in Soudan, on the Iron Range. On the right, Clyde Hanson is with the Sierra Club Northstar Chapter. He follows environmental issues from his home near the North Shore of Lake Superior.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Bob Tammen is a retired miner who worries that the Range is getting ready to trade in its clean environment for economic development.

"I know a lot of people are concerned about jobs, and I point out, there are a lot of projects coming up on the Iron Range right now," Tammen says. "It's difficult for the average citizen to keep track of everything that's happening. We hope the state is keeping track of everything that's happening."

And there are people on the Range trying to keep track, and trying to plan. Chuck Michael is with SEH Engineering of Brainerd. He laid out the challenge at a recent meeting of the East Range Readiness Committee -- a group of Iron Rangers trying to get a grip on what sudden growth can mean. Michael says basic city services could be challenged by an influx of new residents.

"The wastewater plants have a certain capacity, and how much of that, how much growth is available in that wastewater plant before they would have to expand?" Michael asks. "Water treatment facilities already exist. But, how many additional people can they tolerate?"

Main street, Gilbert
The eastern view along Gilbert's main business street is dominated by a mining waste pile. Many of the hills on the Iron Range are manmade, the result of more than a century of iron mining.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Those aren't things a city can throw together quickly, he says. And what if new workers bring along families with kids?

"That's going to have an impact on the school districts as well, because what if they have 500 more kids, and they didn't plan on any new teachers," says Michael.

It could be painful to find classroom space in districts that have been losing students for years. And there's lots more to think about, like basic infrastructure.

"Are the roads at capacity?" Michael asks. "Not tonight, they're not, but in a couple of years, they could be."

At the head of the committee is Marlene Pospeck, who's also mayor of Hoyt Lakes, close to the sites for the proposed PolyMet Mine and the Mesaba Nugget project. Pospeck wonders about the construction phase, when thousands of workers would be looking for temporary housing.

Tailings pile
A short drive on the Iron Range reveals the legacy of more than a century of iron mining. This mining rock waste pile rises over the horizon next to Highway 169 east of Chisholm.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"That construction workforce is another story," Pospeck says. "I think that's where the big concern lies."

Construction workers are often set up in makeshift trailer camps -- places Pospeck says are known for rowdy behavior, frequent police calls, and an increased need for social services. What if the trailer parks aren't enough?

"How are we going to find enough temporary housing, if they stay in commercial lodging properties?" Pospeck wonders. "How will that affect the tourist trade?"

It's one thing to deal with one major construction project -- but two, or three, or more could be a huge strain on the local communities.

Hoyt Lakes mayor
Marlene Pospeck is mayor of Hoyt Lakes, and chairs a committee considering the impacts from an influx of new industries to the east Iron Range.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"The real concern is the timelines of all these projects," says Pospeck. "And, it early on looked to us as if all the timelines were converging. That's more of a concern than the permanent workforce."

The answers aren't coming easily. Pospeck's committee is looking for money for a study, but it hasn't found it yet.

Meanwhile, back in Buhl, Ron Dicklich says it's not a bad problem to have -- far better than the Range has faced in the past.

"It's a lot easier working through the problems of getting these industries than it was looking at those people going home for that last day, and then wondering what's going to happen from then on," Dicklich says.

Still, it's a problem that's coming and will have to be dealt with. Key decisions are expected in the coming months on many of the projects that may reshape the Iron Range. Everyone is hoping the Range will end up in better shape.