Essar Global in India is back in the financial picture at the controversial $2 billion iron ore mine and processing project in Nashwauk after paying off mountains of debt.
The turn of events on Monday that brought the troubled Essar Global back into the picture caught Minnesota state and Iron Range officials by surprise.
Essar said in a statement on Tuesday that it had paid off Mesabi Metallic’s $260 million in debt. That deal was just one of several complicated debt transactions around the world that were collectively worth about $1.7 billion, officials said. The debt repayments were financed in part with proceeds from the sale of a large coal business.
Essar Global was the parent company of Essar Steel Minnesota, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016 after a decade of delays and problems with financing the Nashwauk project. In 2016, the state took the unusual step of asking Essar Steel to pay back its economic-development loans because the company and its parent firm missed so many project milestones and owed thousands of dollars to local contractors.
At the time, angry state officials said they looked forward to dealing with new owners of the project, owners who would honor their commitments.
Fast forward two years, however, and Essar Global is back.
Essar Global officials said in a statement that the group had “purchased [the] $260 million face value notes issued by Mesabi Metallics Inc. These notes substantially constitute all of the debt of Mesabi, and paves the way for Essar Global to once again participate in the low-cost iron ore mining and pellet manufacturing project that is under construction in Minnesota, USA.”
State officials said they are waiting for more information and had more questions than answers.
“We are seeing the same reporting this afternoon that you are,” said Barbara Naramore, the assistant commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who has been spearheading the Nashwauk project.
“What this [Essar debt repayment] might mean for the resolution of remaining bankruptcy matters and for investment in the Nashwauk project remains to be seen,” she said. “The state mineral leases and the DNR [mining] permits are currently held by Mesabi Metallics and/or Chippewa Capital Partners. Any modifications to the leases or permits would need to be approved by the DNR. And we have received no such requests involving Essar Global.”
Mesabi Metallics spokesman Darin Broton was unsure how the Essar deal would play out. He said Mesabi Metallics would still control and operate the project and own a “considerable chunk” of the entity. “Mesabi still owns all the assets,” he said.
The financial move by Essar Global is the latest in a continuing shift in partners on the project.
First a California investment firm named SPL Advisors took control of the project in late 2016 and changed the company name to Mesabi Metallics. Soon after, Virginia entrepreneur Tom Clarke and his Chippewa Capital Partners bought the Essar Steel assets out of bankruptcy. Clarke then sold a majority share of the company to Nubai Global Management, a firm in the British Virgin Islands, but stayed on to carry out management duties.
By late last summer, Clarke was pushed out and a series of lawsuits were hurled between Clarke and Nubai.
In September, Nubai and Mesabi officials met with former Gov. Mark Dayton and assured him that they would finish the project.
Shortly after the meeting, Nubai and Mesabi introduced a new wrinkle: Swiss trading firm Mercuria Energy would buy a majority stake in the Nashwauk project by the end of 2018. Although Mercuria had ties to Essar Global, it assured Dayton that Essar would not be one of its partners in the Iron Range project.
However, Mercuria said at the time that Essar still had financial obligations tied to the bankruptcy.
Mercuria pledged at least $650 million toward the Nashwauk project.
Broton said this week that he could not comment on whether the Mercuria deal has closed or how Essar’s move on Monday affects it. He had said in September that Essar would not be a “decisionmaker or investor” in the project.
The Nashwauk plant, which could produce hundreds of long-term jobs, is still only half-built. But Mesabi in September told Dayton it had already committed $250 million to the project and pledged to spend $400 million on the mine and iron ore processing complex, which it said would be substantially completed by December 2019.
In addition to fights between Clarke and Nubai Global Investors, the project has also created other sore spots and prompted more lawsuits. Clarke sued competitor Cleveland Cliffs over its handling of the matter.
Cleveland Cliffs, in turn, sued the DNR, complaining that it expected to take over the mining permits of the Nashwauk property and adjacent property it later bought next door. That case is still making its way through the courts.