REGIONAL— Workers at the Northshore Mine and taconite processing facility should be back on the job by May 15. That was the news announced earlier this week by Cliffs Natural Resources. “It’s …
REGIONAL— Workers at the Northshore Mine and taconite processing facility should be back on the job by May 15. That was the news announced earlier this week by Cliffs Natural Resources. “It’s wonderful, wonderful news,” said Andrea Zupancich, Mayor of Babbitt, where the Northshore Mine is located. “There had been fears it wouldn’t happen until fall,” she said.
The announcement means all of the company’s 540 laid-off workers should be back on the job within the next two months.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar called it “a good first step,” while acknowledging that more needs to be done to get all the region’s laid-off mineworkers back on the job. Klobuchar said it’s been a team effort by Minnesota’s congressional delegation to raise the profile of the steel industry’s plight. Their efforts brought President Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough to the Iron Range last December to hear from mineworkers and steel industry representatives. Since then, the administration has backed stricter enforcement of anti-dumping laws, including adding additional inspectors at U.S. ports.
The Northshore shutdown was among several plant closures last year across the Iron Range as companies reacted to the dramatic downturn in iron ore and steel prices in 2015 as well as a growing tide of illegal steel dumping at U.S. ports. “The avalanche of unfairly traded steel hitting the U.S. since last year negatively affected our clients’ production levels and, as a consequence, affected us,” said Cliffs Chairman and CEO Lourenco Goncalves in a statement issued this week. “At this time, with the trade cases approaching their final stages and preliminary duties being announced, the volume of unfairly traded steel is starting to subside.”
Klobuchar agreed. “I think we sent a clear message to the people dumping steel, but also to the steel industry so they can feel more confident knowing that our government is with them,” she said.
Iron ore prices appear to have bottomed out at just under $40 per ton in December, a price level below the cost of production for taconite pellets on the Iron Range. But the iron and steel market has seen modest improvement in the past month and with inventories whittled down by months of idle production, Northshore was able to begin pellet production once again. “The company is taking such action based on its domestic customers’ demand for iron ore pellets and consistent with its previously announced production plans for the year,” according to a Cliffs statement.
At the same time, the company announced that it would restart its Direct Reduced Iron-grade pellet production at the same time. The DR-grade pellets, used as feedstock to DRI production, were developed at Northshore, according to Goncalves.
Cliffs is operating at normal rates at its Hibbing Taconite mine in Minnesota, although its United Taconite operations in Eveleth remain idled for the foreseeable future. Other area mines still out on layoffs include Mesabi Nugget, Magnetation, and Keetac. “Hopefully some of the other mines will start calling back workers,” said Zupancich. “Maybe Washington is now listening on this issue.”
Indeed, Minnesota’s congressional delegation suggested that the message has been heard when it comes to stopping illegal foreign steel dumping. “I am gratified and pleased to see that the pressure we’ve been putting on the International Trade Commission, Department of Commerce and the White House to hold these cheating countries accountable is paying off,” said Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan. “The fact is the administration’s crackdown on China and other steel dumping nations is working.”
U.S. Senator Al Franken agreed. “I am hopeful that this action is the first of many signs that Minnesota’s taconite industry is recovering,” he said. “While a recent decision by the Department of Commerce to crack down on illegally dumped foreign steel will help U.S. producers to compete on a more level playing field, we need to do more,” he added.