Cliffs explains why Highway 53 must move to make way for mine
VIRGINIA — Deep in the bowels of the Thunderbird Mine a giant hydraulic shovel tears away at a pile of rich taconite iron ore that had been blasted off the mine wall.
Each shovel load holds nearly 50 tons, and the shovel drops five scoops each into massive haul trucks that pull away with 240 tons of ore headed eventually for the United Taconite pellet plant down the road in Forbes.
Taconite pellets then make their way to Lake Superior by rail, and then by boat on to steel mills in Indiana and Ohio to make U.S. automobiles, trucks, refrigerators and airplanes.
But the open-pit mine wall here has moved precariously close, just
300 feet now, to the U.S. Highway 53 expressway that connects Duluth to the Iron Range. And if United Taconite is going to keep mining, keep producing taconite, keep employing 525 workers, then the company needs to mine under the ground where Highway 53 now runs.
It’s not that the company isn’t also mining in other spots in the sprawling 2,600-acre Thunderbird mine complex. But Cliffs Natural Resources officials say their special taconite recipe at United’s operations requires the high-grade ore under the highway to be blended with ore from other deposits.
With the ore under the highway the mine has another 30 years of life. Without it, the mine would have fewer years, said Nick Beukema, United Taconite mine manager. It’s only about 1,000 feet wide, but the deposit of ore Cliffs needs to get at runs 800 feet deep.
“It’s the best ore remaining here at United Taconite,’’ Beukema said. “While it’s a relatively small amount of land, the ore deposit here runs really deep, so we have a lot more ore per square foot.’’
Cliffs called reporters to tour the mine Thursday to better explain why they are forcing Minnesota taxpayers and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to move the highway by May 2017.
The move, the company says, isn’t just a whim to make more money. The ore under the highway “is the key to this operation continuing to employ people and have an economic impact on this region,’’ said Sandy Karnowski, Cliff’s spokeswoman in Minnesota. The United Taconite operations have an estimated $273 million economic impact on the state.
“It’s become clear this is something they need to do to remain viable,’’ said Pat Huston, a MNDOT engineer working on the project.
Unfortunately it’s not as clear where to move the highway. The forced relocation of a mile or two of the region’s primary north-south commerce corridor is expected to cost in excess of $100 million, and it’s been called the state’s most geologically challenging highway project ever.
The highway has to be re-routed because of a codicil in the 1960 deal between owners of the mineral rights under the highway and the state. The deal allowed the state to build the highway but also gave the owners the right to kick the highway off with seven years’ advance notice. They did just that in 2010, with Cliffs, along with the holders of the mineral rights, RGGS, saying they want to expand the mine. That notice set the clock running to May 1, 2017.
The exact re-routing of the highway still hasn’t been picked and was hoped in large part be determined by a $4 million project this summer to drill test borings and build test foundations for a possible bridge across the water-filled Rouchleau Pit on the southeast side of Virginia.
But MNDOT officials said Thursday that not a single contractor bid on the project to build test footings in the flooded Rouchleau pit. MNDOT still hopes a contract can be awarded by September and that they will get answers by winter on whether and where a bridge can be built.
Even then, MNDOT officials have signaled that there is little chance they will meet the May 2017 deadline to have the new highway route ready.
Officially, only one option has been discarded — to re-route the highway west of Eveleth and Virginia and back to its current alignment in Mountain Iron. Business owners along the existing highway protested loudly, and politicians were successful in getting the option killed early in the process.
Several other options remain:
* No build. Essentially close the highway; that’s not likely to happen.
* No new building. Instead, the state would try to “buy out” the rights to the iron ore below the highway, a prospect that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and that mining officials say could close the entire United Taconite operation when it runs out of ore.
“It’s not just the value of the ore in the ground, unprocessed. … But what about the value of the wages that would be lost if they stopped mining? The economic impact? That’s tougher to calculate,’’ Huston said.
* The so-called M1 option to build the new road just west of the current alignment, right through the heart of the existing Thunderbird Mine. Cliffs has said it won’t allow that option because of too many technical and regulatory hurdles and because it may hinder mine access. Hundreds of feet of good ore would have to be covered with rubble to build the highway through an active mine, with bridges underneath to let the haul trucks and shovels move back and forth.
“It’s never been done before,’’ Huston said. “But we have to keep it in the possible options for now.”
The most likely options include:
* The E1A bridge option, the most direct but potentially challenging route over the Rouchleau Pit and linking back with the existing highway alignment at about the Virginia Target store.
* The E1A fill option, which would fill in part of the open-pit mine, following along an old road used to move ore out of the mine and routing the new highway on fill rather than a bridge. A sub-option has the fill encased in concrete, looking much like a dam.
* The E2 option to cross the same mine pit but much farther north, taking a longer loop to meet back up with the existing highway alignment, still near the Target store.
The E1A options appear to be the most appealing, and acceptable to Cliffs, local businesses and local officials. But MNDOT engineers need to know whether the rubble at the bottom of the mine pit is stable enough to hold massive bridge foundations, as big as eight feet in diameter.
“There is no magic solution to this. We’re going to have to engineer the right answer,’” Huston said. “We need to come up with a route that keeps this mine operating, that is the most direct connection for the highway possible and that avoids encumbering as many ore deposits as possible.”