Hibbing Daily Tribune
FORBES — United Taconite is no longer a one-pellet plant.
While it’s true that only one pellet can be made at a time, employees there now make an iron ore pellet and the Mustang superflux pellet.
Cliffs Natural Resources, which owns the mining operations in Eveleth and Forbes, on Tuesday hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of of the Mustang Pellet Project. Company officials, dignitaries, project stakeholders and employees gathered on the grounds with the rumble of trucks and the hum of conveyor belts in the background.
The $75 million project, which corresponds with a 10-year pellet agreement with ArcelorMittal, came in on time and on budget.
It also boasted of 250,000-plus estimated hours of labor during construction with not one loss-time incident. Employment peaked at 120 during construction, including management, craft and labor.
This new production at UTAC is replacing operations at Michigan’s Empire mine, where ore supplies concluded last year. Lakehead Constructors was the primary contractor on the project.
The Mustang project required a new storage facility, silos, a limestone crusher, conveyors and rail infrastructure on site.
The Mustang superflux pellet is in full production mode for shipment to ArcelorMittal, and will make its debut arrival there on June 2.
The ceremony marked almost exactly one year to the day that UTAC reopened after an 11-month idle. It also signifies a reversal in the iron ore market on the Range, and hope for an extension of the mine’s life.
Simply put, mining was put back on the map.
“Mining and iron ore are the backbone of our nation’s economy, the backbone of our national security and we’re back on track again and this time we’re going to keep it on track,” said Congressman Rick Nolan. “This Mustang Project is helping to strengthen that foundation, secure our nation and our jobs, and it has Minnesota’s Iron Range on the rebound.”
Nolan said all indications are that there’s a minimum of 500 years of good mining left.
“That’s if we only have the wisdom and the good judgment to do what needs to be done to get it and keep it on track,” he added. “Hats off to Cliffs.”
He, as did Sen. Amy Klobuchar, spoke about White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s visit in 2015 and how that triggered the turnaround in Washington. Nolan also credited Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves with having the foresight, taking the risk and keeping his word.
“You gave us jobs. You have given us hope. You have given us a future,” he said. “Thank God the day you moved from Brazil to America. We love you.”
Calling the Mustang Project exciting and impactful, Klobuchar applauded the company for helping ensure employment for hundreds of miners on the Iron Range. She described Goncalves as fearless for not only reopening Cliffs’ operations but for expanding during not-so-favorable conditions.
“We see the fruits of your labor,” she said.
Klobuchar also provided a brief history of Cliffs and outlined some of her efforts to fight foreign steel dumping and provide support for U.S. steelworkers and miners.
UTAC General Manager Chad Asgaard confirmed the project was completed on time and on budget.
“We started the mill on May 12, at 3 a.m., and 20-minutes shy of exactly one-week, we were shipping on target, flux pellets to the Duluth dock, which is an absolutely unbelievable and unheard of achievement,” he said.
He thanked all those involved with the projects, including contactors and UTAC employees — a group critical to the start-up of Mustang.
USW Local 6860 President Brian Zarn mentioned the layoff, how the workforce returned and are now producing the Mustang pellet — “which by all accounts is a stunning success and exceeding all expectations in regard to quality.”
“The taconite industry had always been cyclical — boom or bust — but now because of Lourenco Goncalves’ foresight to make this huge investment in our plant and because of the experienced, dedicated workforce, we have a more marketable product to carry us forward with much more stability than we had with only our acid-producing facility,” said Zarn.
Given a standing ovation as he approached the mic, Goncalves acknowledged the fight against foreign steel and the united front put forth to convince the powers that be. Conveying the same message was key, as was speaking from experience, he said.
Talking about the Mustang Project, Goncalves said the project wouldn’t be the success it is without the “great workforce, and working as partners with the steelworkers.”
“I’m very pleased and very proud of our relationship,” he added. “We have a lot more in common than disagreements.”
Cliffs’ interests lie in creating new markets, new pellets for new users, and keeping jobs on the Range, said Goncalves. Their focus is on growth and doing what they do well.
And what’s next for Ciffs?
Goncalves said the future of Minnesota’s iron mining industry lies in the production of direct reduced iron (DRI) and hot briquetted iron (HBI). He vowed that Cliffs will have the first HBI facility in the Great Lakes region.
Noting the company is “extremely advanced in the process of getting this done,” he rallied those present to lead the charge and help Cliffs secure the former Essar property.
“It’s a homerun, if we do it right,” he said estimating such a facility would reflect an investment of around $700,000 million. “But there’s only a small window of opportunity. I don’t have time to mess around with courts.”
He pointed to the Mustang Project as evidence of Cliff’s commitment and ability to get things done.
“These moments matter,” said Goncalves. “This shows that we are real. We speak from the heart, and are real persons.”