For the first time in nearly 25 years, the Itasca County town of Nashwauk has been rattled by explosions this summer.
That's not unusual in northeast Minnesota's iron mining country, but in Nashwauk, the sound has been a long time in coming.
After more than a decade of planning, blasting is a first step toward Essar Steel's huge project that will combine an iron mine, taconite pellet plant and steel mill. The work delights area residents eager for new jobs, but worries nearby homeowners concerned about dust and light.
Demolition crews are blasting through 400,000 cubic yards of rock to make room for the $1.6 billion Essar Minnesota plant, one of the most expensive in Minnesota history. Building fabrication work could begin late this year, and continue in earnest through 2011.
Crews will be erecting structures where mined rocks will be ground and separated into a high iron concentrate. Farther east, another 100,000 tons of bedrock will be blasted for Minnesota's newest taconite plant, where the concentrate will be formed and cooked into dark, marble sized pellets.
A couple of years later, two more plants begin operations. One will create a high iron feed for steel-making called direct reduced iron, or DRI. The other will be a steel mill -- the first in northeast Minnesota mining country.
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The project already, which has created about 100 construction jobs this year, will create thousands next year, said Kevin Kangas, Essar Steel's director of health, safety and environment.
Next year is going to be a big year for us, hoping to get our buildings up," said Kangas said.
Essar Steel Minnesota is the third transformation of a company that began in the late 1990s as Minnesota Iron and Steel. When completed in 2015, the plant will be the first iron-mine-to-slab-steel operation on one site.
Producing steel next to the iron mine will greatly cut the costs of producing steel.
Kangas said the company will come on line in phases, with pellet production starting in late 2012. Afterward, the company will start building the direct reduced iron operation and steel mill.
Essar's footprint is huge -- almost 20,000 acres for mining pits, waste rock storage, production buildings and as buffer around the project. The project is a long awaited blessing for the town of Nashwauk -- a small mostly square grid built on iron miner's paychecks.
"We've seen some hard times," Mayor Bill Hendricks said. "We've seem mines having to shut down completely."
With other regional mines closed, last year was particularly hard, Hendricks said. Those plants have reopened, but the town has been on a slow downhill slide since the local taconite mining company closed in 1985.
Nashwauk, which had 1,400 residents when Butler Tac was operating, now has a population of less than 1,000.
The strain shows. The town's downtown is a mix of ongoing businesses and empty shells. For a couple of yeas, a fire-blackened service station has greeted visitors from Highway 169.
Though it looks like a town with a distant past, the hum of machinery tells Hendricks that Nashwauk is now a town with a future.
"There's hopes and dreams of people having jobs," he said. "It's a blessing to see it take off and start up."
Not that a project like this doesn't come with downsides. Just ask the Wrights -- an extended family with several lake homes on Little Sucker Lake, across from the Essar project. Family matriarch Ann Wright said Essar's rail bed construction turned their properties pink.
"This is some of the dust that we've wiped off of the tables and chairs outside," Wright said. "Our railings -- my handicapped railings -- are all full of iron ore out there. We have to keep washing them down, keep cleaning the deck off so that that red stuff doesn't come in on my floor.
From her property, Wright will be able to see the new steel plant just over the tree line.
"They said we'd have 24 hour daylight," she said.
Kangas said company officials have taken steps to minimize the project's impact on neighbors like the Wrights. They're still considering how to keep noise down and bright lights away once 24-hour-a-day production begins, he said.
The proximity creates mixed feelings for Shelly Wright, who supported the project until she realized its gas pipeline would run next to her house.
"I'm happy for the people that are going to progress because of this," she said. "I just don't want it here."
Meanwhile, the Essar project is getting a second round of environmental review.
Essar has proposed several changes that will allow them to produce additional taconite pellets for the company's steel mill in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. It also has proposed other modifications to the project like bigger mining trucks and a larger taconite pellet furnace. That would increase air emissions, but company officials think they can keep mercury and nitrogen oxide levels at or below what's already permitted.
A draft copy of the modified environmental impact statement is expected this fall, and final approval is possible early next year.