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Mining town hall generates sparks in Nashwauk

A worker uses a backhoe to bury a ground grid at the fine ore storage facility at Mesabi Metallics near Nashwauk. (2017 file / News Tribune)

NASHWAUK TOWNSHIP — Hundreds of people packed the Nashwauk Township Community Center on Monday to hear Gov. Mark Dayton, Mesabi Metallics CEO Gary Heasley and others offer an update on plans to move forward with the long-promised, long-delayed Nashwauk mining and pellet plant project.

It wasn't a receptive audience.

The people who filled every seat in the hall, lined the sides of the room two deep and the back three deep and stood close together in the entryway voiced their approval as one audience member after another said: We'd rather have Cleveland-Cliffs.

"We support Cleveland-Cliffs," said Andy LaBarge of Local 6860 United Steelworkers at United Taconite. "If you do not support Cliffs, we do not support you."

Many members of the audience shouted their agreement.

Heasley appeared nonplussed by the sentiment. He admires Cliffs and its CEO Lourenco Goncalves, he said. But Cliffs has had opportunities to mine the land for decades and hasn't taken advantage of it.

"No one has harmed Cliffs in any way," Heasley said. "I don't see a problem here. I don't see a fight."

Dayton agreed.

"They own sites where they could apply to the DNR for permits for mining," he said of Cliffs. "If they want to build a value-added project here, they can begin that process. To date they haven't done so."

The state can't simply take leases away from Mesabi Metallics and award them to Cliffs, the governor said.

Dayton later engaged in a testy exchange with David Cartella, who identified himself as being with Cleveland-Cliffs. Cartella claimed that Dayton previously said that Mesabi Metallics had violated its lease agreement with the state.

"No, sir, I never said that," Dayton responded angrily. "I said you could make a case for that, but you'd have to go to court. We'd be tied up in court for years. We don't have the authority that people seem to believe we have to just yank these leases and give them to somebody else."

Cartella also claimed that Dayton had admitted to breaking a promise to work with Cliffs on developing the site.

"Let me answer that," Dayton answered, standing and facing Cartella. "My honest and integrity means a lot to me. And I've spent 40-plus years up here doing every g-- d--- thing I could to bring jobs to the Iron Range with one exception — Twin Metals. Everything else I've supported. Everything else I've done, within the law, whatever I could."

Several people in the audience pressed Heasley to tell them whether Mesabi Metallics jobs would be union jobs. Heasley didn't answer the question directly, but he did say he would honor a neutrality agreement previously signed by former CEO Tom Clarke.

The plant near Nashwauk has been in the works for a decade without coming to fruition. Essar Steel Minnesota began building facilities there before abandoning the project in bankruptcy.

Frustration with the process was palpable in the audience at Monday's town hall.

Some of it was reserved for Dayton and other state officials.

"We wish the state had never gotten involved in this," one man said.

Heasley urged those at the town hall to see the project as an investment in their future.

"We're talking about multi-generational quality jobs," he said. "The last hundred years have been pretty good, but where do you go from here? ... This isn't about the people in this room. This is about your children and grandchildren."