VIRGINIA - For 40 years, the smallest taconite plant on Minnesota's Iron Range has been the steadiest.
Today that little plant, ArcelorMittal Minorca, is poised to achieve an impressive milestone.
At its current production rate, the 2.8 million ton-per year facility will produce its 100 millionth ton of iron ore pellets today.
"People always ask, 'What does 100 million tons mean?' " said Jonathan Holmes, general manager of the taconite plant.
Well, Holmes did the math.
It's enough pellets that if laid end-to-end, they would stretch 243 million miles.
It's enough pellets to produce the steel needed to manufacture 60 million cars and trucks or 2.3 billion washing machines.
It's enough pellets to stretch to the sun and back and then to the moon and back 114 times.
It's enough pellets that if laid down as a roadway 120 yards wide, it would circle the earth.
Get the drift?
It's a whole lot of pellets - about 25 trillion, according to Holmes.
"It's a milestone and coupled with 40 years of operation, we've been steady and sustainable," Holmes said. "It feels good that we've been able to provide steady employment. It's been good for our employees and good for the vendor community that supports us."
As Northeastern Minnesota's taconite industry emerged, ground for the plant broke Oct. 17, 1974. The first shipment of pellets left the plant June 9, 1977.
"It was a pretty big deal," said Jeff "Buff" Swanson of Cherry, one of 10 remaining employees who have worked at the plant since it opened. "It was a new place and everybody was pretty excited about it. I'm just shocked that it's been that much (100 million tons)."
In spite of having a significantly smaller annual capacity than Northeastern Minnesota's other five taconite operations, ArcelorMittal Minorca has been rock solid.
Since 1987, when it began producing high-quality flux pellets, the single-line plant has idled only once. That was in 2009, when all Northeastern Minnesota taconite mining operations were temporarily shuttered in the midst of a nationwide steel recession.
"It was a new place when I came here from Erie (Mining Co.), where I had been laid off twice in six months," said Swanson, who was 19 years old when hired. "I thought, 'what did I do?' - but it was the best thing I ever did. It's been a good place to work."
Much of the plant's stability is because its pellets feed ArcelorMittal's No. 7 blast furnace at Indiana Harbor in East Chicago, Ind. It's the largest blast furnace in the Western Hemisphere and part of the biggest integrated steelmaking facility in North America.
The furnace thrives off ArcelorMittal Minorca's pellets.
"There's a specific pellet that needs to go to the No. 7 furnace and that's a key for the operation," Holmes said. "The chemistry of our pellets is custom-designed for the furnace. It's a highly-fluxed pellet which (uses) more limestone and dolomite. It's different than the flux pellets produced at the other (Northeastern Minnesota) mines, and the No. 7 blast furnace is able to take advantage of it for throughput and energy efficiency."
ArcelorMittal Minorca has only one primary crusher, one crude ore conveyor to the plant, three concentrating lines, and one pelletizing line. It means that outside of scheduled maintenance work, the plant has to operate like clockwork 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to meet production and cost goals.
Designed to produce 2.6 million tons per year, the plant has consistently produced 2.8 to 2.9 million tons annually.
And being small has its advantages.
"The communication is easier between people," Holmes said. "From the mine to the plant, it's kind of one facility. Another advantage is the ability to work together between departments and understand that what happens in the mine impacts pellet production. The goal is to optimize the end product."
Reinvestment in the facility continues to be strong, said Holmes. Process improvements, high-quality ore, reliable production and decades of remaining mineral reserves hold promise for a long future, he said.
"If we do our job here and make a high-quality product at reasonable cost, that's your ticket to stay in business," he said.
Just like the first 100 million tons.