FORBES, Minn. – The CEO of Cleveland-Cliffs on Friday gave a strong denunciation of the state’s treatment of his company, vowing to continue fighting for mining rights on the land it owns in Nashwauk, Minn.
Cliffs — which operates United Taconite, Hibbing Taconite and Northshore Mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range — had wanted to take over a $2 billion taconite project in Nashwauk after Essar Steel Minnesota filed bankruptcy in 2016 and left the facility half-built and mired in debt.
After the filing, Gov. Mark Dayton supported CEO Lourenco Goncalves’ plan, saying the state would probably award the mineral rights to the property to Cleveland-Cliffs. But after a group of investors led by Virginia businessman Tom Clarke bought Essar’s assets out of bankruptcy court, Dayton said the mineral rights should go to the new owners.
“Dayton stabbed me in the back,” Goncalves said Friday to employees at United Taconite’s headquarters in Forbes.
Dayton’s office did not comment on Friday. Earlier in the week, Dayton said the bankruptcy court’s involvement has limited some of the state’s decisionmaking power on the project. Helping the project to completion needs to be the goal, not starting over, he said.
“If somebody wants to take over the operation, they should make [the new owners] an offer,” said Dayton, clarifying that he was not talking about any specific party.
The new owners renamed the Essar assets Mesabi Metallics and have started work on the properties. Clarke was bought out by Nubai Global Investment of the British Virgin Islands and, in a controversial move, Nubai announced this week it was selling a majority share to the Swiss firm Mercuria Energy.
Mesabi officials told Dayton on Tuesday that so far $250 million has been invested in the project and another $400 million has been pledged. The taconite plant should be done by December 2019.
The whole process, though, still does not sit well with Goncalves and his supporters on the Iron Range, and they still believe the state can change direction.
Cliffs, which is based in Cleveland, has been bullish on the iron ore business, particularly in Minnesota, and continues to believe the untapped minerals on the Nashwauk land will be valuable. Cliffs already paid back a large debt that wasn’t due to be repaid for another 20 years. Goncalves said prudence demands that the company deploy its cash in smart ways such as on wise capital expenditures or repaying shareholders.
When Mesabi, under Clarke’s control, missed a critical financing deadline, Cleveland-Cliffs bought up 3,700 acres of the land that was originally supposed to be part of the Essar project.
Standing in front of a map of yellow and orange squares, Goncalves invited his guests to examine all the yellow on the map. “See all that yellow over there. That is mine.”
A Mesabi spokesman on Tuesday said the company is working with Cleveland-Cliffs on issues regarding the land.
In the meantime, Cliffs has sued the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Mesabi Metallics for failing to remove Essar’s name from the mineral permits for the 3,700 acres that Cliffs owns. The company said in a lawsuit it has asked twice, and the state has refused both times.
Goncalves on Friday said he still hopes to build a thriving mining business that brings jobs to Nashwauk. The ore mined just from those 3,700 acres would provide enough for Cliffs’ purposes, he said.
A judge in the Minnesota District Court in Itasca will ultimately decide if the DNR will alter the mining permit.
If the courts rule in Cliffs’ favor, the company would probably go ahead with plans to mine that property, Goncalves said. But he emphasized that he “will not wait forever.”
“The ball is in Minnesota’s court,” he said. “Give me the part of the permit that belongs to me.”
Goncalves also said he still hopes to build a hot briquette plant on the broader Nashwauk property.
That’s not a certainty, though. Goncalves said he was so put off by Minnesota’s treatment that Cleveland-Cliffs already is building a next-generation plant in Toledo, Ohio. The Ohio site now has about 1,300 construction and other workers employed.
Goncalves said it comes down to Dayton and other officials putting their faith in Clarke, whom he called a “snake oil salesman,” instead of a proven company like Cliffs.
Officials at Mesabi Metallics could not be reached for comment.