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Aaron Brown writes about northern Minnesota.

Up North Report: Inside North America's biggest construction project

The aggregate and ball mills at the new Essar Steel Minnesota construction site near Nashwauk on the Mesabi Iron Range as seen on May 21, 2015. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Construction is accelerating at the long awaited $1.9 billion Essar Steel Minnesota mine near Nashwauk, while Essar now says it’s optimistic about producing direct reduced iron products here.

In a tour of the Northern Minnesota site on May 21 with Mitch Brunfelt, Essar’s assistant general counsel and director of government and public relations, I took pictures and observed progress at the site of the biggest construction project on the Mesabi Iron Range in a generation. This is currently the largest greenfield construction project on the continent, and it's hard to understate the sheer size, commontion, and   labor involved. The site produces a steady drone, easily heard from my home eight miles away.

After years of starts and stops, Essar now says it is finally fully financed and has increased its contractor workforce at the site. About 400 workers were on site the day I visited. Brunfelt said they will soon see 600-800 workers on site each day as summer arrives in force.

Essar has officially amended its construction timeline to reflect the realities of the company’s progress. Brunfelt said Essar engineers are now eying production of taconite by late June or July of 2016. This is a revision from earlier projections to be making pellets by the end of this year, a claim that didn’t seem plausible to most observers. Based on the amount of work I saw, however, the new completion date seems possible.

I asked about rumors of other mines looking to buy into the Nashwauk project. Brunfelt said Essar, a privately held company, is not looking for partners and plans to operate this taconite plant on its own. They have off-take agreements to send the initial annual capacity of 7 million tons of pellets to Essar’s Algoma steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on the east end of Lake Superior and to Arcelor-Mittal, the world’s largest steel company with mills in North America.

One of the most interesting things I learned on this tour was that Essar claims their pellets will be the lowest-cost pellets in North America, which Brunfelt said will protect this new plant’s viability in the ongoing consolidation of the global steel market. Brunfelt would not reveal their target for cost-per-ton, but said that efficiencies adopted in a new taconite mine will make their pellets more affordable than any others on the continent. And, the big story, rumors that Essar was abandoning direct reduced iron, or “value-added,” are false, Brunfelt said.

“Our firm position is to get this [taconite plant] done first,” said Brunfelt. We’re optimistic about a value-added product. It’s going to take time.”

Brunfelt said Essar is already permitted for 1.1 million tons of direct-reduced iron, the site is already designed to add that capacity, and the company’s international parent has experience running DRI facilities. One of the initial challenges will be the fact that Essar will need to increase its taconite production capacity to produce the new DRI materials. Brunfelt said that regulators will want to observe normal operations for a couple years to obtain environmental data to determine if the company will receive the OK for additional production. If that happens, Brunfelt said the plant would produce 10-14 million tons of ore annually, some of which would feed into new DRI operations.

Regardless, Essar will be able to produce different kinds of pellets at its new plant right away — ranging from traditional blast furnace pellets common to Range mines, to a “flex” pellet, to the direct reduced grade pellets used in newer electric arc furnaces.

See more May 21 photos of Essar Steel Minnesota's ongoing construction project, along with other observations at my blog.

PHOTO: The aggregate and ball mills at the new Essar Steel Minnesota construction site near Nashwauk on the Mesabi Iron Range as seen on May 21, 2015, Aaron J. Brown.

Great Lakes, Great Neighbors: my interview with Canada's Governor General

The International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie. Canada's Governor General David Johnston grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the product of an "international marriage" between his Canadian dad and American mom, who themselves were raised on either side of this bridge. (PHOTO: Emily Bell, Flickr CC)

The International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie. Canada's Governor General David Johnston grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the product of an "international marriage" between his Canadian dad and American mom, who themselves were raised on either side of this bridge. (PHOTO: Emily Bell, Flickr CC)

Thanks to a strange set of circumstances involving Twitter and a longstanding history of witty repartee with the Canadian Consulate's digital team, I was granted the chance to interview His Excellency, the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, on Thursday, April 23.

The Governor General, constitutional head of the Canadian government as representative of the Queen, performs a series of diplomatic, ceremonial and cultural job duties. That's why, starting Sunday, April 26, he started a four-day tour of the Great Lakes region of the United States. I spoke to him before his trip began for a lovely chat about his childhood in the hockey-and-steel town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and the purpose of his trip to Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago and Detroit.

Johnston was a three-sport athlete at Sault Ste. Marie, playing hockey with Hall of Famers Lou Nanne, Phil and Tony Esposito and going on to become a two-time All American captain of the Harvard University hockey team. He would become a lawyer and respected law professor before Queen Elizabeth II granted him his current title in 2010.

The Governor General participates in a Canada-U.S. Forum Monday in Minneapolis before giving the keynote address at the Great Lakes Economic Forum Tuesday in Chicago, and then concluding his trip in Detroit later this week.

My interview with Johnston was broadcast as part of the Saturday, April 25 "Give and Take" program and again Monday morning on Northern Community Radio You can listen to the interview now at my blog

Some highlights from the interview with Governor General Johnston:

On his offices apolitical role

"It's delightful in the sense that as I visit communities and other nations that I'm not negotiating difficult matters or tensions but attempting to strengthen the people-to-people relationships and say, you know, when people get to know one another better and build on what they have in common, good things happen."

Our nations' special relationship

"We've enjoyed so much security, so much prosperity and so much exchange of ideas and innovation. In today's world where national boundaries are diminishing somewhat you look at regional ecosystems and what they have in common and how they enrich one another. First of all the Canada and U.S. trade relationship is by far the largest in the world. Canada is the largest customer for 35 U.S. states. That basin of the Great Lakes connecting towns and communities is one of the busiest in the world with a great deal of movement back and forth -- goods, services, ideas and education. Our challenge is to take that very special relationship of the Great Lakes and say how do we move it up another level or two and be very ambitious about it."

The Great Lakes states and provinces comprise the world'd fourth largest economy.

Isn't that impressive that a geographical region that circumscribes a lakes system is the fourth largest economy in the world. It's built yes, initially on natural resources. It began with the fur trade and then it became agriculture,

When you think of the cross border movement of intellectual property, and therefore goods and services, and where we have to go, it's really quite exciting. And it's all in this backdrop of really good friends who enjoy one another's company and contribute so much to the health of the communities on either side of the border.

How can we renew our industrial cities and natural resource-based regional economies?

We have to be innovative, don't we. We have to be resilient. We have seen economic cycles and industrial cycles throughout history. Those societies that manage those best are always looking ahead.

... What we must do to our natural resources based economy is add value to those resources, use ingenuity and great public education systems to trade not just with one another but with the world, and constantly reinvent ourselves.

... I believe that happens best if you are vigorous and aggressive in your competition, to take your trade directly to the world. Then build the collaborative networks and partnerships that develop from that."

One thing he wants Minnesotans to know

"We've been great neighbors and we face the challenge of reinventing ourselves. Let's do it and see the Great Lakes as something that brings us together as it has for 400 years."

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