Range revival? United Taconite to restart by October

A haul truck advanced on a wide mining road.
A haul truck advanced on a wide mining road inside United Taconite's Thunderbird Mine on August 7, 2014 in Eveleth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

United Taconite, a huge open pit iron ore mine in Eveleth and taconite pellet plant in Forbes, will restart operations in mid-October and ramp up to full production by November, according to Cliffs Natural Resources CEO Lourenco Goncalves.

"Now we have a firm timeline to start bringing people back to work," Goncalves said. "Actually we already started to contact the first folks that we need back on the job to start working on the restarting of U-Tac."

Cliffs closed United Taconite last August amid a surge of cheap and often illegally dumped steel into the U.S. that caused steelmakers to drastically cut back on their purchase of iron ore pellets from Minnesota mines.

Goncalves delivered the shot of good news for the struggling Iron Range shortly after Cliffs announced it had reached a 10-year iron ore pellet supply contract with steelmaker ArcelorMittal USA.

Cliffs plans to invest $65 million over the next two years to upgrade United Taconite to make a new kind of "superflux" pellet, specifically designed to feed ArcelorMittal's Indiana Harbor 7 steel-making facility, the largest blast furnace in America, Goncalves added.

The pellet will replace a product that Cliffs has been producing at its Empire Mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which is closing in mid-August as the mine runs out of ore.

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"We're going to start right away to hire engineering companies and construction groups to make the modifications to the plant," Goncalves said.

The announcement to reopen United Taconite comes after Cliffs brought back more than 500 workers to its Northshore Mining operations in Babbitt and Silver Bay last month. That facility had been closed since last November. That leaves U.S. Steel's Keewatin Taconite as the only one of the Iron Range's six major taconite operations that remains indefinitely closed.

At the peak of the downturn late last year, about 2,000 mine workers on the Range had been laid off, with hundreds more in spinoff industries also out of work.

When U-Tac goes back on line this fall, that number will drop to around 800.

The market for Minnesota iron ore has improved since the federal government began placing large tariffs on imported steel sold illegally in the U.S, Cliffs' Goncalves said.

"Because of the trade actions that have been taking place right now," he said, "we feel that the market is starting to show real good signs of positive development."