Mining and jobs on the Iron Range


Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Mine, Mesabi Range, 2010

By Chipcity – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


What is the fate of mining in northeastern Minnesota? No one knows the answer but it’s clear that ferrous and non-ferrous mining won’t go away without fights.

First, the StarTribune reported,

The state signed off Thursday on the decade-long environmental review of the first copper- nickel mine proposed for the Iron Range, marking a major turning point in the most contentious environmental fight Minnesota has had in years.

Next will come what is likely to be an equally heated debate about how to protect taxpayers from the environmental risks in the most treasured corner of the state as regulators tackle the next phase of the $650 million open pit mining project — permitting and financial assurance.

The company proposing the project, PolyMet, estimates that construction of the facilities will create 500 jobs and that the operation will generate 350 jobs per year over a 20-year lifespan.

Those are some of the benefits. The costs?  Back to the StarTribune story:

When exposed to air and water, the waste could produce an acid that leaches heavy metals and other pollutants from waste rock that could drain into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. There is also a chance that decades from now when the mine closes, some water could drain north to the nearly pristine watershed that holds the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

That’s quite a cost-benefit calculation to consider: 350 jobs per year plus the associated multiplier effects against the risk of polluting much of the surrounding watershed.

Second, those 350 potential jobs look good in an area that lost thousands of ferrous mining-related jobs in the past year due to collapsing prices in the international steel market.

To deal with the situation, President Obama recently stepped up enforcement of rules against dumping foreign steel.  On Tuesday, the Commerce Department announced 266 percent tariffs on imports of cold-rolled steel.

I’ve long been skeptical about these policies.  The usually end up helping steel companies and their stockholders and only marginally helping unemployed workers.  Sounds a lot like non-ferrous mining: big paydays for mining companies, slim pickings for workers, and potentially large bills left on the state’s doorstep.

I think it’s better to think about northeastern Minnesota’s economy in differently.  Aaron Brown has four excellent suggestions for starting the conversation:

  • Use what you have. Northeastern Minnesota has more than just minerals in the ground; it has human capital all over the surface in rural areas, towns, and cities.
  • Learn from mistakes: remember what didn’t work and draw lessons from it and look at what is working and learn from that too.
  • Set new goals
  • Never lose sight of the big picture.

I think of the last two suggestions as one and they are, to my mind, the most important: instead of focusing on maintaining mining jobs, think about maintaining and improving the well-being of area residents.

Jobs are a means to that end, not the end result.  We need to keep our eyes on that prize.