The leader of Cliffs Natural Resources has threatened to shut down one of the company's Minnesota taconite plants if the Essar Steel Minnesota taconite plant being built near Nashwauk begins production.

In an interview with the Mesabi Daily News published Sunday, in reference to Essar, Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves said "if they go online, I will shut down a plant up there the same day."

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Cleveland-based Cliffs owns and operates Northshore Mining in Silver Bay and Babbitt and United Taconite in Eveleth and Forbes, as well as the Empire/Tilden operations in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It also is part owner and manager of Hibbing Taconite.

Most workers at United Taconite have been laid off since the plant went idle earlier this year.

Essar is building the state's first all-new, full-scale taconite iron ore operation in 40 years just outside Nashwauk in Itasca County. The company broke ground for the new, nearly $1.9 billion mine and processing plant in 2008 and has all of the necessary government permits in hand to finish work and start production.

Essar told the News Tribune earlier this month that it's working toward taconite production sometime in 2016.

Goncalves has long been a critic of the Essar project, stating that it will create an oversupply of taconite. Earlier this year, he said the Iron Range would "pay the price" of seeing mining operations close if Essar's proposed taconite production entered the market.

Earlier this month, Cliffs announced it was ending its sale of taconite pellets to Essar Steel Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, because of what it said were Essar's "multiple and material breaches under the agreement."

Essar responded with a temporary restraining order against the termination, but withdrew its request for that order last week after securing an alternate supply of ore. Essar "continues to pursue resolution through the courts on the matter of breach of contract," the company reported.

In response to Goncalves' latest comments, Essar Steel Minnesota CEO Madhu Vuppuluri told the Mesabi Daily News that he was "very saddened to hear that statement that could have such an impact" on the Iron Range.