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Iron Range makes sure White House gets the message

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Denis McDonough listens
Laid off miner Dan Hill tells his story as White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, right, listens in Virginia, Minn., on Tuesday.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

The Iron Range is hurting, and it needs help from Washington. That was the message White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough heard Tuesday during an emotional meeting with mineworkers and local leaders.   

  Nearly 2,000 workers have lost their jobs on the Range this year. Most blame the crisis on what they say is a flood of illegally imported steel into the country.    

McDonough's two-hour meeting with about 70 people was closed to reporters. But when it was over, Dan Hill, a laid-off worker from United Taconite in Eveleth, said he and others had delivered a clear message. 

  "I gave a speech," he said. "It was right to the point, asking the chief of staff if he can ensure that my kid, our kids, have a future up here, and we're not the last mining generation."  

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said that during the meeting he was also thinking about his son, an engineer at Minntac, the largest taconite mine on the Iron Range.   

"Three weeks ago, for the very, very first time, he told me, 'Dad, I don't know if I'm going to be able to stay,'" Bakk said. "I sent him a text, 'This is a really high power meeting.' He responded back with four words: 'Hope he can help.' That, I think, is how all of us feel."

  McDonough didn't promise any specific help. But he said President Barack Obama had directed him to visit the Iron Range because of the urgency he attaches to the situation there and in other steel-producing communities around the country. 

  "This is a challenge that has important economic consequences, but important national security consequences as well," McDonough said.

  Everyone — from local and state politicians, to Minnesota's congressional delegation, to the mining and steel companies — blames the crisis on imported steel. They say other countries, mainly China, are illegally subsidizing their steel and dumping it in the United States at less than their cost to make it.   

  The American economy is strong, and so is steel demand. Auto production is at record levels. But the need for steel has dropped elsewhere, especially in China.   

Denis McDonough and Sen. Amy Klobuchar
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Sen. Amy Kobuchar enter a meeting with Iron Rangers in Virginia, Minn., Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. President Obama sent McDonough to the Iron Range to hear about the concerns of laid off steelworkers who have had their unemployment benefits run out. The visit comes a few days before Christmas and as hopes are dimming that the local steel industry will rebound anytime soon.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

McDonough, though, wouldn't say whether he believed the Iron Range crisis was caused by illegal dumping.   

  "That's not a determination I can make," he said. "I heard very strong cases in the room. When it comes to legal determinations and enforcement questions ... we've always handled those not by the White House chief of staff, but through the agencies that are in charge of those."  

Those agencies are starting to take action. Last week the U.S. Commerce Department ruled that China was subsidizing a certain type of steel by more than 200 percent.   

Cliffs Natural Resources CEO Lourenco Goncalves said that's one of six crucial cases pending before the International Trade Commission, all alleging illegal steel dumping. Cliffs operates three mines on the Range, two of which are shut down. It's waiting for decisions on four of those pending cases. 

  "We can't afford procrastination," Goncalves said. "We need to bring these mines back, we need to bring the jobs back. We deserve that."

  In the meantime, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, all Minnesota Democrats, are urging the Obama administration to take action. Nolan, whose district includes the Iron Range, has introduced a bill to ban foreign steel imports. Another bill was passed this year to speed up the process of resolving trade disputes.   

But Klobuchar said there are other steps government officials can take. "They can put more inspectors right at the ports," she said. Illegally subsidized steel, she said, "shouldn't come onto our shores."     

Politicians at Iron Range meeting
From left, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken wait for a meeting to start in Virginia, Minn. on Tuesday.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

People on the Iron Range are fearful. Workers, company execs and politicians all say the Iron Range can compete with anyone in the world — if there's a level playing field. But as  Bakk put it, that doesn't matter if there are no U.S. steel companies left to buy Minnesota taconite pellets.   

Klobuchar said the Iron Range has weathered the booms and busts of the iron industry before.  

  "But we've never seen anything like this, where we are seriously concerned that this is a systemic breakdown," she said. "And that's why we need action."

  And even though McDonough couldn't promise any White House action yet, laid-off mineworker Dan Hill echoed the sentiments of others who said they were glad he'd come to hear what they had to say. 

  "Before this meeting there was no light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "We were just seeing one plant close after the other after the other. Then steel mills closing. After this meeting, I think the light's been relit."