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Legal battle continues between Cliffs, Clarke

Tom Clarke, who is leading efforts to restart the former Essar Steel Minnesota project as Mesabi Metallics, talks about the project in what will be the plant’s pelletizing building near Nashwauk last month. (News Tribune file photo)

The battle between Cleveland-Cliffs and Tom Clarke, owner of ERP Iron Ore and Mesabi Metallics, continues to be waged in courts and in the media.

Cliffs and Clarke remain embroiled in a battle for a rich deposit of taconite iron ore near Nashwauk, battling in court and among Iron Range and state officials as well as union workers.

But the two parties also are fighting over coal mine issues after Clarke purchased faltering coal mine operations from Cliffs a few years ago.

The News Tribune has previously reported how both sides have claimed the other owes them millions of dollars over the coal deal. Cliffs first filed suit against Clarke's Seneca Coal Resources in May 2017, in federal district court in Delaware. Now, in a 106-page redacted brief filed April 9, Cliffs has accused Seneca Coal Resources of violating federal racketeering or RICO laws.

Cleveland-Cliffs sold the Pinnacle mine in West Virginia and Oak Grove mine in Alabama to Clarke's Seneca Coal Resources in 2015 in a $268 million deal based on Seneca Coal assuming all liabilities at the sites. But Cliffs says it still hasn't paid them in full.  In the latest filing, Cliffs alleges that Clarke and his investment team used money from Seneca's operations to stock their own bank accounts or moved money to another Clarke-owned coal company, Mission Coal. The suit alleges mail and wire fraud, and breach of contract.

Clarke acquired the bankrupt, half-finished assets of the former Essar Steel Minnesota project last year and is working to restart construction in earnest this summer and produce both finished taconite pellets and pig iron at the site by 2020, employing some 350 people. He needs to start work by June or stands to lose valuable state mineral leases at the site.

Both Clarke and Cliffs have acquired privately owned mineral rights at the Nashwauk site but that battle, too, is being considered by Federal Bankruptcy Judge Brendan Shannon. Meanwhile, Clarke met with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Iron Range officials on Tuesday in St. Paul to further the Mesabi Metallics project.

Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves has said he wants the iron ore at the Nashwauk site for Hibbing Taconite, which is approaching running out of ore, but said he has no plans to finish the Essar taconite project. He has threatened to move any expansion of his iron ore operations to Michigan if Minnesota gives Clarke the state mineral leases at Nashwauk.

In a prepared comment to the News Tribune, Clarke said "there is zero viability to the outrageous claims of Lourenco Goncalves. I am proud to openly discuss any of my business activities.''

Clarke added that "we have many updates on Mesabi, but to share them publicly will only invite further disruptive actions by Mr. Goncalves."

Mesabi Metallics has filed documents in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware accusing Cliffs of trying to sabotage their efforts to move the Nashwauk project forward.

Clarke's ERP Iron Ore is trying to revive the bankrupt Magnetation operations based in Grand Rapids.

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