Mining firm vetoes Hwy 53 reroute plan

A veto by a taconite mining company has taken a popular plan to reroute a major northern Minnesota highway off the table.

Highway 53, which in Minnesota runs from Duluth to International Falls through the Iron Range, travels alongside United Taconite's open pit iron ore mine in Eveleth.

Three years ago, parent company Cliffs Natural Resources told the state Department of Transportation it would have to move the highway so the company can mine underneath it, something the state agreed to in 1960.

MnDOT prepared four alternate routes. One would have built two huge bridges over the active mining pit. Many Iron Rangers preferred that option, but Cliffs now tells MnDOT it can't support that plan because of air quality, safety and other concerns.

"We've been pretty open about some of our concerns, particularly on the environmental issue," said company spokesman Sandy Karnowski. "We had concerns that we could operate in compliance with air quality regulations if there was a four-lane highway through our pit."

The company was also concerned about public safety and operational challenges, Karnowski said.

MnDOT Project Manager Roberta Dwyer said the department aims to have the new highway built by 2017.

"We're still on schedule," Dwyer said. "It is a very aggressive schedule, but it's still doable."

Dwyer said another popular route would span an abandoned mine pit east of Virginia that's now filled with water.