Let’s Talk Iron Range and Boundary Waters Politics

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Ranae Hanson, author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir “Watershed”

Ranae Hanson is an advisory board member of Changemakers Alliance and author of “Watershed,” which won the Minnesota Book Award this year for creative nonfiction and memoir. Her book focuses on the health of borderless waters and throws some light on the culture of the Iron Range in Minnesota, where she and her siblings grew up and where several of her family members still live.

For years, environmentally minded people have been concerned about the impact of mining and pipelines in the neighboring Boundary Waters and wild rice harvesting among Indigenous populations. What sometimes gets lost in polarized conversations is that there are different types of mining, with different impacts. We conducted a series of deep conversations with people connected to the Iron Range in order to understand the issues better.

In those conversations, Hanson said that one thing that frustrates her is that many urban friends who are environmentalists do not distinguish between taconite mining and copper-nickel mining. Additionally, many people do not recognize the differences between the proposed Twin Metals mine and the proposed PolyMet mine. One is in the Boundary Waters watershed and one is not.

She says many advocates do not seem to be aware that The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is not against all area mining but is specifically opposed to the Twin Metals copper-nickel mining. “We are arguing over proposed mining. We are not discussing the taconite mining infrastructure that is already operating or the fact that that existing infrastructure needs attention.”

The Infrastructure of Taconite Mining

Jeff Hanson, Babbitt

Copper-nickel mining gets the most attention. But the long-standing mining on the Iron Range is taconite mining. Both forms can cause high sulfate concentration in the water, which travels downstream and damages wild rice.

Jeff Hanson is a mechanical engineer — brother to Ranae — who has worked in a variety of capacities related to the mining industry. After working in Brazil, he returned to his northern Minnesota roots and discovered how deep the sulfate issue is here. “There has been nothing done about it,” he says. “What we have been doing is shouting at each other a lot about it. Some are saying, ‘We don’t want to kill the wild rice,’ but others say, ‘It’s too expensive. We can’t do anything about it.’”

Hanson started to work on the problem. How do we remove sulfate from taconite mining-impacted waters? He points out that this is not the same as sulfide mining-impacted waters, for many reasons, but primarily because we do not currently have sulfide mining. “What we do have, big scale, is taconite mining, and that’s where the sulfate comes from now. PolyMet in their review process proved that sulfate could be removed with reverse osmosis, but that’s very expensive — too expensive for the taconite mines. So, I have been working on methods to biologically remove the sulfate that [is] far more affordable. I think there are solutions to that problem.”

He suggests the focus on mining in northern Minnesota should be on the taconite mining we already have, and how it can be transformed to be positive for the environment, for climate change, and for greenhouse gases. Hanson says the solution with a greener iron and steel industry would create more jobs than could ever be created in copper-nickel mining.

He says it is inevitable that the steel industry needs to move to “much lower emissions with Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF), and our taconite pellets cannot be used in EAF. That means we must make a big change, which could be a very positive impact on lowering emissions, as well as a tremendous job-generating function on the Iron Range. It would not be impacting the Boundary Waters. I think we [of] a progressive mindset should be focusing on that which could be, instead of creating more of a division between ‘mining’ and ‘environment.’ Bring them together.”

In addition to saving an industry that creates jobs, while avoiding aspects of the industry that impact waters and wild rice, Hanson points out that a change in the conversations now could also save Minnesota from even more conservative politics. It was unions that helped keep the Range “Blue” (Democratic Farmer Labor or DFL) for many decades.

“This issue of mining versus the environment has driven away a lot of that union adhesion, and this has cascading ramifications. On the Range, in the last election we went “Red” (Grand Old Party, or GOP/Republican). It is going to be tough for Minnesota to stay Blue if the Iron Range is Red, and therefore it is going to be tough to keep diligence on environmental controls, or to move in the right direction on climate issues. I think this is critical deciding factor,” he says. “Republicans in general are not friends of the environment. Different unions are debating who has been more loyal to the unions, and it boils down to that word — jobs. We should be actively for environmental positive, new mining/iron/steel jobs that help the nation move to greener, less polluting steel.”

Passion for Iron Range Living

Lacey Squire, Ely

After Lacey Squire moved to northern Minnesota, she went through old newspapers and discovered that the public school system in Ely graduated sometimes 150 students per class each year. Now the graduating class numbers about 32. “That is painful. That is sad, and hard to watch, and hard to see.”

Squire is from a small town. Her father worked 42 years for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (now referred to as 3M). She considers herself a rural advocate. “If we can transform rural economies, we could change a lot. I feel a lot of empathy for the people who have lived on the Iron Range for their entire lives. This is their home, but there are buildings in disrepair, and there are people who own homes who cannot afford to do important maintenance. They have a very personal connection to the idea that the economy needs to be better. There are people [in the mining industry] saying there is a way to make it better, and then there is a group of people trying to block it. I don’t agree that a copper nickel mine is a solution, but I understand the need for an economic solution.”

Ely, Babbitt, Tower, and all of Cook County are wilderness-edge communities, neighbors with America’s most visited wilderness, Squire points out. “There is not a shortage of people who admire the region, and maybe not even a shortage of people who would consider relocating here — but we lack housing infrastructure, we lack childcare infrastructure, and we lack broadband internet. Those are the three most important things that need to happen in order for us to fully engage economic growth initiatives. Incubating other businesses, other manufacturing, maybe even getting more involved in the tech industry — those are the directions that current resources would point you toward.”

People in northern Minnesota want to “live a more intentional life. These wilderness-edge communities could be even more of a go-to place.”

Ranae Hanson says that when she was a student in Babbitt schools, it was the second richest school district in the state because of the taconite tax. “Now it is poor and small. There are, I think, 15 kids in my grand-niece’s class now. Babbitt has been consolidated with Embarrass, Tower, Soudan. North Shore Mining is closing down until the fall.” [According to a Duluth News Tribune reporter, a royalties dispute, and the reduction of the need for scrap metal in electric arc furnaces, reduces the need for taconite pellets. Layoffs were expected for 410 of the 580 employees at the Silver Bay and Babbitt mines.]

Ranae Hanson has been looking for housing for a man and his child. The closest to Babbitt is in Eveleth or Virginia, which is 45 miles away, and even that is not sustainable on his income. “Anyone who needs a vacation spot up here can get one, but somebody who needs a place to live because he’s got a job here cannot.”

Jeff Hanson points out that most people who live on the Range are not wealthy. When wealthier people from the Twin Cities start to move into the area, it prices out of the community those who are struggling. “They have been working hard a lot of years and they love where they live. They love their fishing, hunting, canoeing. They are avid Boundary Waters people. They love the environment they are in, and they want to stay there. But they need their jobs to do that, and when their jobs are threatened, they are also threatened on not being able to live there anymore — a place that they dearly love.”

Nitty-Gritty Section About Direct Reduced Iron

Jeff Hanson offers a detailed explanation of why Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) can rejuvenate the Iron Range economy while reducing impact on the environment. The steel industry contributes about nine percent of all greenhouse gases. “Steelmaking must change. We cannot rely on open hearth furnaces like we used to, or blast furnaces that use coke and coal. It is a very, very, dirty process related to carbon and greenhouse gases,” he says.

The U.S. produces about 70 percent of its steel in EAF, which are much less harmful than blast furnaces. In this way the steel industry is making progress to be dramatically lower on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. Taconite pellets were designed to feed a blast furnace, supplemented with a lot of coking coal. The carbon in the steel comes from the coking coal, which emits tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and carbon. EAF were developed to recycle steel by melting it to make new steel. Taconite pellets are too low in iron content to fuel EAF, since taconite pellets do not conduct electricity.

Every year another blast furnace is closed. That is great for the environment, “but when the last blast furnace shuts down, they will have zero need for taconite pellets as the Range produces now.” So, the taconite industry in Minnesota has to reinvent itself. “If we hope to keep those jobs in Minnesota, it has to happen,” Hanson says.

Midrex, a company working to de-carbonize the iron and steel industry, developed a DRI process based on natural gas, “but the end game that they are promoting, and the steel industry is promoting, is to make DRI with hydrogen.” Taconite could be combined at the mine site with local green hydrogen “with almost zero emissions. It would be tremendous. The question becomes, where will they do this? If they did it at the mine sites here, it would be the more efficient process because you wouldn’t have to heat stuff up and cool it down, then ship it across the Great Lakes to someplace else and heat it up again and cool it down again.”

Jeff Hanson continues: “Some people are promoting the idea that we need to make DRI on the Iron Range. It would be the most efficient steel operation in the United States, and it would create many more jobs on the south side of the Iron Range, where the pelletizing plants are now, not on the north side of the Iron Range where the Boundary Waters is. Those jobs would be many, many more than anything provided by copper nickel.”

Updated July 2: U.S. Steel announced plans to upgrade its iron ore capabilities in Minnesota with a $150 million investment toward a system dedicated to producing Direct Reduced (DR)-grade pellets. The plant will be located at either its Keetac or Minntac facility on the Iron Range. Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL – Hibbing) issued the following statement: “I’m pleased by U.S. Steel’s announcement of such a sizable investment in our region. With blast furnaces becoming obsolete, demand for DR-grade pellet production as part of the steelmaking process will continue to increase, and it only makes sense for the company to expand in an area with such a rich heritage as the Range. I hope the project will ultimately be based at the Keetac facility to help stabilize jobs for these workers and help secure its future viability.”

Additional response by Jeff Hanson: “The recent announcement by U.S, Steel that they will produce DR grade pellets is good — albeit a small step towards the much larger step of making DRI (direct reduced iron) and eventually “green steel” on the MN iron Range. Making DR grade pellets is a new, essential step for U.S. Steel and one Cleveland Cliffs did a few years ago in Silver Bay and more recently in Virginia. Yet, producing DR-grade pellets is a long way off from making DRI and/or “green steel.” To do this we need renewable, green energy to produce DRI using hydrogen and avoid using natural gas. Once this happens we could have steel with a far lower carbon footprint and lower costs. The Washington Post recently explained how Boden, Sweden, is trying something similar and how significant this can be. If we were to promote and aggressively pursue green energy (think wind, solar, Canadian hydro, or new compact nuclear), DRI, and green steel production in Minnesota, we would be doing a big help to slow climate change while creating an employment boom in northeastern Minnesota.”

Read more on this update

Aaron Brown, columnist

On Mistrust & Oversimplification

As a northern Minnesota-based columnist and teacher, Aaron Brown says there is environmental agreement about why DRI production on the Iron Range is important to do. “The political problem is that the issue is “broadly painted as the pro-industry, pro-mining faction versus the pro-environment green faction, and those camps are staring each other down. Of course, even one tiny step to the side or one toward the other is an admission of total defeat and therefore unacceptable.”

He recognizes that there is not much trust between people in general and institutions of industry and government. People do not expect that big players will do things safely in the way that they promise. Yet the debate ends up falling into one of two simplistic positions: Are you for a form of mining that is risky, or are you in support of the Boundary Waters and fresh water?

“Both of these are classic either/or arguments that aren’t reality, but because people believe them, they become reality. That is where we’re stuck,” Brown says. “U.S. Steel in particular has to figure this out. You don’t hear much about it, but U.S. Steel is investing in electric arc furnaces. … In the 1960s, U.S. Steel was a global titan — a teetering one perhaps, but still one of the biggest companies in the world. It is not even in the top 100 anymore. So U.S. Steel, to stay relevant, has to figure this out, but they are limited cost-wise on what they can do. Everything involved takes money — billions of dollars.

“In my extreme environmental state,” he continues, “I would say we should not mine because we should get along without it and I am happy to live in a stick house in the woods and freeze. But I don’t think most of us are going to do that. So, I would like to compromise on this, which means I want to propose that the environmental movement get behind getting rid of blast furnaces and the coal that goes into them, and move toward electric arc furnaces, and that Minnesotan environmentalists begin to press for DRI produced on the Range, so that we could benefit economically from this thing [taconite] that we have.”

Shifts in Politics and Corporations

Brown also says the voters in northern Minnesota have shifted toward “voting to stick it to the Twin Cities. … It is a cultural gap of people trying to express a feeling of being left out of a society — but also a risk, a fear response, an anger response, an almost revulsion to the changes of our times, and a lack of context to handle or process those changes.”


There are other cultural changes as well, Brown continues. “In the early heady days of the corporation, it was broadly understood that the corporation had obligations to its stockholders, but that it had an obligation to the whole U.S. economy as well. The Grover Norquist, more aggressive, corporate model thinking, starting in the ’80s, is this ferocious, almost zealous, commitment to stockholder returns being the only and primary aim.”

After U.S. Steel announced an investment in innovations such as EAF, “they were punished by the stock market, by the investors over the short run, because they saw U.S. Steel putting money into long-term future stuff, which meant ‘now is the best time to sell out, because they are not going to be producing as much while they are doing that. Why do companies always have a stock bump when they lay off people? Because now investors can get the money as the employees get the pink slip.”

A taconite plant with skilled workers who get paid well and are safer is great, he continues. But the automated system requires fewer of them. “What does everybody else do? They work at gas stations, they work at hotels and restaurants. Those are the workers that we abuse, both in terms of pay and benefits. You are basically telling people that the are not worth it. This is one of the crises of confidence that a region like the Range faces.”

A family used to be able to survive with one person in an important job. That is where the nostalgia — no longer available today — comes from. “There is no going back to it, despite political efforts to say you can. I think we have to counter this nostalgia stuff really hard, and say, ‘This is the new world.’”

Aaron Brown points out that people on the Range who bought a house in the 1960s are now on a fixed income, yet the valuation is increasing, which leads to higher taxation and insurance costs. “We got a 91 percent increase in our county valuation.” The lower-income service sector workers, who are nurses or teachers or work at convenience stores, do not have much economic power and are essentially ignored.

“People don’t trust institutions at all, and if you come in thinking you can sell the old 1970s version of liberalism’s institutional support network, well people just don’t believe it. And they don’t believe it for reasons that I can understand, because even if you pass stuff, two years later some legislator, some Congress, is gonna muck it all up.”

What Next?

Even though she is opposed to the proposed Twin Metals mine and cautious about the proposed PolyMet mine, Ranae Hanson wonders whether it was wise for Twin Metal’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be stopped a few years ago. The evidence gathered for that EIS would have told people what the actual impact of such a mine would be. It would, she believes, provide solid evidence against it. She says her fear is that a subsequent conservative administration will push both projects through without adequate environmental standards.

“PolyMet has been going through that environmental review now running on 18 years, so we have learned a lot about it. Twin Metals was barely starting. Currently we only have two hard positions: ‘Yes, we can do it safe’ and ‘No, you can’t.’”

An analysis was recently re-started on Twin Metals for the Bureau of Land Management, by the U.S. Forest Service. The Secretary of the Interior has the authority to make decisions based on that assessment. The Department of Natural Resources stopped its separate state review in February 2022 since it was determined the land leases were improperly renewed in 2019.

Says Ranae Hanson, “We talk a lot about copper nickel. Who is talking about this transition of the steel industry? One of the complaints on the Range is that nobody in the cities listen. That is why Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni stopped being Democrats over this issue. They became Independents and now they are not running anymore.”

The mechanization of taconite jobs today is dear to the hearts of unions, she adds. If progressives were talking more about supporting the transition of the taconite industry into a lower-carbon, lower-greenhouse gas, industry in Minnesota, she believes the unions would come back politically. “People might see the possibility of having a good job on the edge of the wilderness that they dearly love,” Hanson says. “How do you get people to get deep enough into the technical side to understand the complexity of what is going on? How do we get informed and civil conversation about mining and politics?”

If you are interested in joining future discussions related to Iron Range politics, economic recovery, and exploring the impact DRI might have on rejuvenating the area without impacting the waters, reach out to anna@womenspress.com.

Videos from these conversations are viewable here.

Related Resources

Ranae Hanson Contributions