Taconite mine, steel plant wins OK from state
ST. PAUL -- A taconite mine and steel-producing plant could be operating in two years after a state board Friday gave Minnesota Steel final governmental approval for a $1.6 billion proposal, one of rural Minnesota's largest-ever economic developm...
ST. PAUL -- A taconite mine and steel-producing plant could be operating in two years after a state board Friday gave Minnesota Steel final governmental approval for a $1.6 billion proposal, one of rural Minnesota's largest-ever economic development projects.
An 8-0 vote of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens' Board approved an air permit needed before construction can begin near Nashwauk in northeastern Minnesota.
The $1.6 billion project is so important for rural Minnesota that the state's top economic-development official compared it to the opening of the Twin Cities' Mall of America.
"It fits into the category of what we call a megaproject," said Dan McElroy, commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. "They don't happen often."
Minnesota Steel President John Elmore said work on the Iron Range plant will begin soon, and an India-based company, SR Steel Group, can begin the process of closing its purchase of the operation within days.
The plant eventually would employ 700 workers with up to 2,100 others working in support roles, Elmore said. An estimated 2,000 workers will be needed to build the facility.
Elmore told the board the operation would pay state and local governments $18 million in taxes and royalties each year.
Immediately after the vote, Elmore shook numerous hands, including those of most of the nearly 50 business, labor and government representatives who came to St. Paul supporting Minnesota Steel's plans.
State law requires a 30-day period for opponents of the proposal to appeal the board's decision, but even those testifying during a five-hour hearing -- before the board voted with almost no discussion -- said they oppose only specific parts of the plan. Everyone who testified Friday said they support the overall Minnesota Steel proposal.
The unanimous vote and lack of opposition to the project gave Elmore confidence that Minnesota Steel can start turning dirt soon.
The company's plan is to begin mining the Range's most iron-rich taconite deposits and, on the site near Nashwauk, process ore into steel. No other North American operation makes steel where ore is mined, and Elmore said he knows of no such operations in the world.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and the Swan Lake Association, made up of some residents near the mine site, delivered the only negative comments about the mine.
Ronald Rich of the lake group, for instance, complained that dust would affect residents around Swan Lake, some of whom live within 1,000 feet of where mining leftovers known as tailings will be piled.
And Rich worried that pollution will seep into the area's water. "Our water would be taken away from us," he said.
Attorney Kevin Reuther told the citizens' board about several of the environmental center's concerns, including a fear that dust from the operation will affect visibility in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area 60 miles away. He also complained that electricity needed to run the plant will contribute to air pollution.
But state and Minnesota Steel officials said the company has met every state and federal environmental requirement.
Two Nashwauk-Keewatin students, wearing white Minnesota Steel caps, were among those testifying in favor of the plant.
Pollution Control Commissioner Brad Moore allowed Justin Peratalo to testify before the board broke for lunch, so that the sophomore quarterback could hurry home to play in Friday night's football game against Chisholm.
His high school classmates want the plant to be built, he said, because there are few other places they can work after graduating.
"It's a good place to live," Peratalo said.
Jill Levine, a ninth-grade student, said area towns that are declining need the steel mill.
"The steel mill would, hopefully, bring these towns back to where they used to be," she said. "All the positives outweigh the negatives."