The only Iron Range mine still shut down due to the pandemic is set to restart.
U.S. Steel announced Thursday that it would be restarting the Keetac iron ore mine and pellet plant in Keewatin, which has been indefinitely idled since May, leaving 375 employees out of work after the pandemic caused the demand for steel to fall.
But next month they'll be back to work.
"We will resume operations in mid-December," U.S. Steel spokesperson Amanda Malkowski told the News Tribune. "We're starting to recall workers as soon as today."
In an emailed statement, U.S. Steel said the decision comes as demand for steel improves.
"We are encouraged by the increase in demand and believe this restart will best support our customers," U.S. Steel said. "This will also ensure that we have sufficient iron ore supply where it is needed to meet that demand. We expect to fill nearly 400 positions as part of this restart and will work with the United Steelworkers to recall employees that may have been affected by the idle."
In a call with investors last week, U.S. Steel CEO David Burritt said the company was considering reopening Keetac to rebuild an inventory of iron ore pellets before locks on the Great Lakes close for winter.
The Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to the rest of the Great Lakes, are generally closed mid-January to mid-March due to ice. Ships loaded with ore in Lake Superior pass through the locks to reach steel mills along other Great Lakes.
Dan Pierce, a diesel mechanic at Keetac and president of United Steelworkers Local 2660, which represents workers at Keetac, said Thursday the restart was "awesome news" and a "stress reliever," especially just before the holidays.
"We have a huge amount of new members that lost their insurance at the end of October, and we were slated to have another big bunch lose their insurance at the end of November," Pierce said. "So this is a big relief for a lot of young families and members that have never been through it before."
Pierce said the company will reach out to members Friday and some people will begin returning to work to get the plant ready for restart soon.
In a statement Thursday evening, Gov. Tim Walz applauded U.S. Steel's decision.
“This is a good day for the Iron Range and for an industry that’s a pillar of Minnesota’s economy,” Walz said. “The decision to reopen Keetac will restore hundreds of good-paying union jobs for Minnesotans in the Northland. I’m excited to see Minnesotans get back to work.”
As pandemic-induced restrictions swept the U.S. this spring, demand for steel fell, causing iron ore mines in Minnesota to idle.
At its height, Keetac, Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining in Babbitt and Silver Bay and ArcelorMittal-managed Hibbing Taconite had all idled. Additionally, U.S. Steel's Minntac in Mountain Iron lowered production and laid off 260 of its workers.
Layoffs at the three idled facilities and Minntac totaled approximately 1,760 workers, more than one-third of the 4,105 total jobs at the Iron Range's six mines in 2019.
Most of the mines reopened and recalled employees by mid to late summer but Keetac remained idled.
Due to its small size, Keetac is usually the last mine to restart after downturns. It produced just over 5 million tons of pellets and employed 451 people last year while Minntac produced 13 million tons of pellets and employed 1,460 people.
But its restart is a sign of improving demand for steel and the iron ore pellets used in its production.
In the spring, the country's blast furnace utilization fell from 81.6% on March 7 to 51.1% on May 2. Last week, it reached 70.4%, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.
Burritt last week said he was confident demand would remain high.
"We believe today's market demand is sustainable and will continue into next year," Burritt said. "As vacations, movies, concerts and dining out have been replaced by vehicle and appliance sales and home improvement projects, we have continued to see a noticeable increase in steel demand."
This story was updated several times with additional information from U.S. Steel and quotes from USW Local 2660 President Dan Pierce. The final version was published at 7:06 p.m. Nov. 5. The initial version was posted at 3:46 p.m. Nov. 5.