Photographs of early Mesabi Iron Range mining are in black and white. We may identify the gray material in the rail cars as iron because why else would those mustachioed gentlemen have shoved it up?
But the early open pit and underground mines were very much driven by the color — bright, vibrant colors of steel blue, pink, red, and gunmetal grey. Mining engineers like my great-grandfather plied their skill by sight as well as by drilling and assaying.
I know this because I have seen a vast hematite reserve in modern photographs. In reality, the soft, rich iron ore that built Chisholm, Hibbing, and all the towns of the Iron Range still exists. However, its abundance lies on the other side of the same ocean people crossed to extract the ore here.
The largest untapped iron ore reserve in the world may be found at the Simandou mine in the West African nation of Guinea. Two billion tons of high-grade ore rest below a jungle mountain range deep in the country’s interior. Reports list the iron content of the ore there at 65-66%. This is significantly greater than the industry standard of 62%. For steelmakers, it’s the difference between 87 octane and racing fuel from the local Spur station.
Not only does one have to dig the ore from a densely forested area, but you have to get it through a jungle to the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles away. Remember, When the Merritt Brothers discovered Mesabi iron ore in 1980, they were nearly ruined, moving it less than 85 miles to Duluth.
Rio Tinto has been developing mines at Simandou for the last ten years. But the company hit several snags with the Guinean government, a barely democratic regime with a history of corruption in mining leases. Rio Tinto was dealt a further blow when Guinea parceled off the Simandou reserve and gave a state-owned Chinese company right to almost half the ore.
Early last month, the Chinese government approved the building of a 400-mile railroad and new port. Their companies will withdraw iron out of Guinea, around Cape Horn, and off to hungry mills in China.
Now, this might not directly impact our local iron mining industry. Rather, we see another case of the complex international dynamic that keeps our mining economy in a holding pattern.
The Mesabi Range’s major benefit is that expensive taconite plants currently operate here with a robust system of shipping iron ore to market. Although the plants are getting older, upgrading them would be easier than building new ones. This region will continue serving North American markets for decades. Probably not with the same number of mines and mining jobs, but that’s another topic.
But these mining facilities are only as active and innovative as the companies that own them. And this has proven a mixed bag.
Cleveland-Cliffs developed iron nugget technology at Northshore and new varieties of pellets at United Taconite, all with an eye for the newer electric arc furnace markets. By contrast, U.S. Steel appears permanently wedded to older blast furnace technology. Their stockholders want profits now, not billions in new costs. And as we have seen this year, any slump in demand sends all mines reeling backward.
I’m the fifth generation of my family to live on the Mesabi Iron Range, the first in my father’s line to never work in a mine. Steeped in the history of this place one might assume that the gods of iron ordained the Mesabi as the global pinnacle of iron ore production. But that hasn’t been true in half a century. We’re currently a regional mining center. Our mines feed a mature economy that won’t repeat the meteoric growth of the 20th Century anytime soon.
Iron ore comes from various places, sometimes at a higher quality than it does here. Our region’s objective — in mining and everything else — should be stability and sustainability. We have to make a much better product, not necessarily more. We should profit equally from the knowledge in our heads as we do from the minerals under our feet.
If we fail in these modest goals, we’ll watch it all slip away far sooner than most would like. The whole world is colored by iron, not our region alone.