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U of M officials seek money from state for mining research

A haul truck carrying more than 240 tons of taconite ore takes a load to the crusher in the Thunderbird Mine of United Taconite in August. (2014 file / News Tribune)1 / 3
The Reserve Mining Co.’s iron ore pellet plant at Silver Bay — seen here in about 1960 — was named in honor of University of Minnesota professor E.W. Davis, who helped develop the processes to separate and concentrate taconite iron ore. After several decades of less involvement in the state’s mining industry, the University of Minnesota is looking to devote more resources to helping the industry. The Reserve plant is now Northshore Mining, owned by Cliffs Natural Resources. (File / News Tribune)2 / 3
Taconite pellets are stockpiled in Superior in April 2009. (File / News Tribune)3 / 3

The University of Minnesota wants to dig back into hard-rock mining in a big way, with a push to bolster existing iron ore efforts, develop new copper-nickel deposits and solve the vexing environmental and health problems that come with both.

In January, the university will ask Minnesota lawmakers for $6.25 million over the next two years to kick-start the new Initiative for Sustainable Mining Solutions.

“This state has this active and successful mining industry but the university as a whole maybe hasn’t been as engaged in supporting it as we could have been,” said Rolf Weberg, director of the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “The question we are asking now is, ‘How do we bring all the resources of this impressive university system to the aid of the mining industry and the communities around mining?’ ”

While the NRRI and its Coleraine research laboratory have been active in supporting the state’s mining industry — from basic geological research to developing treatments for water contaminated with mine waste tailings — the school’s Twin Cities campus has been far less involved.

The U of M’s School of Mining and Metallurgy in the Twin Cities opened in 1892 and closed in 1970, with pieces dispersed to other departments. The university’s Mines Experiment Station, where professor E.W. Davis did his famous taconite research, was established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1911. It closed amid budget shortfalls in 1990.

In the past two years, the university has tried to build closer ties to the state’s economic engines through its MnDRIVE applied research effort to invent the things that Minnesota business in general needs to grow.

Now, university officials propose the school’s biggest mining-focused push since Davis invented the processes to separate and concentrate taconite iron ore. That process, perfected in the 1950s, has added a half-century of life to the state’s mining industry after the state’s rich natural iron ore was depleted.

“As the nation’s largest producer of iron ore … Minnesota has historically depended on its mining industry, which has a $3.2 billion impact on the state’s economy,” said Brian Herman, University of Minnesota vice president for research. “The U’s Initiative for Sustainable Mining Solutions will enhance our economy during a time when mining is seeing resurgence and, at the same time, advance environmental protection and sustainability.”

Herman said the effort will bring researchers from the Twin Cities campus together with UMD, NRRI and even the Morris campus to focus on four or five key areas to “optimize extraction” and “minimize environmental and human health impacts of mining.” Those are include “characterization” of geology, not only to pinpoint valuable ores but also determine the pollution potential of the surrounding rock; resource recovery, including new mining techniques to recover valuable ore from waste products; pollution prevention, especially minimizing waste created in the mining process; and new treatment technologies of any mining waste that can’t be avoided.

“Can we deliver or develop technologies to mitigate acid mine drainage and sulfate?” Herman asked. If so, he added, that not only would help promote Minnesota mining but could create water treatment technologies that could be used worldwide to help people in need of safe drinking water.

Dave McMillan, a University of Minnesota regent representing the 8th Congressional District in Northeastern Minnesota and an executive vice president of Minnesota Power, said the university works best “when the campuses are working with each other, not against each other.”

“The university solved the problem of running out of red ore a long time ago, and now I think they can expand on that in a pretty big way,” McMillan said. “We’ve got to find some solutions to things like sulfate, and I think this is heading in the right direction. … This (initiative) has implications not just for the mining industry but for wastewater treatment and maybe other areas.”

It’s hoped that the effort will spur new technologies to be developed by new businesses that hire new employees who spur economic growth. The effort also could help bolster university coffers, through patents, and spur more tax revenue and mining royalties for the state, some of which also go directly to the university.

“We see this is a long-term initiative,” Herman said, calling the Legislature’s investment “seed money” for a much broader impact on the state

Herman said the effort is more an evolution than revolution for the U of M, citing the ongoing university study into why a disproportionate number of Iron Range men, most of them taconite industry workers, are dying from mesothelioma, a fatal lung disease exclusively associated with exposure to asbestos. A study showed the source probably isn’t the taconite rock being mined on the Range. But the study also wasn’t definitive on what the exposure was.

The proposed initiative received a whiff of attention in recent weeks as the university unveiled its budget proposal. But school officials concede they have few details; they are still forming the mining project even as they prepare to ask lawmakers for support.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper-nickel industry group, said he’s heard few details on the initiative.

“We’ll be watching and paying attention,” Ongaro said. “But it strikes me that if the university can fund and support research aimed at bettering the state’s mining industry, at the same time the mining industry is giving so much back to the state, that’s a good thing all around.”

Weberg said he expects the initiative to act as a problem solver for the industry as well as help allay fears of mining critics and skeptics.

“What can we do to make Minnesota mining more efficient; to reduce its footprint on the land; to reduce its energy use and carbon footprint? What can we do to reduce waste so that less raw material has to be mined?” Weberg said.

He noted that processing taconite gobbles up huge amounts of natural gas and electricity, driving up the cost of production. Maybe new processes can be found to reduce that energy use, Weberg said.

One of the goals, Weberg noted, is to get university experts in divergent fields and on different campuses to work together on a single, mining-related goal. One of those goals, for example, could be helping the taconite iron ore industry reduce the amount of sulfate in its wastewater. That sulfate is blamed by some for damaging wild rice beds, and many taconite plants can’t meet the current state standard for sulfate in their discharge.

In fact, NRRI, UMD and Twin Cities’ campus researchers already are working on just such a project using a MnDRIVE grant.

“There are opportunities for the university to really take that next step toward sustainable mining, not just for the industry, but sustainable for the communities, economically, environmentally, for the state,” Weberg said. “Take sulfate. It’s a real issue. The current mining industry is going to have to solve it at some point. We can help them get there by bringing in expertise in engineering, technology development, biotechnology… people are doing amazing things with bugs right now. We have the people across the university. We just need to bring everyone together.”