Bankrupt Magnetation LLC has a possible buyer for its remaining assets.
Court documents filed this week identify ERP Iron Ore LLC as the interested party and state the company hopes to restart some of Magnetation’s closed iron ore operations on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Magnetation and its debt partners received several bids but “have not received a higher or better offer than that presented by ERP,” said the U.S. Bankruptcy Court documents filed late Tuesday and Wednesday. “ERP has expressed that it intends to restart the debtor’s operations in the future, which could translate to the generation of jobs and a source of business for local vendors.”
Magnetation and ERP signed a preliminary purchase agreement on Tuesday. A court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Dec. 15.
ERP Iron Ore is a subsidiary of ERP Compliant Fuels, which owns coal operations in Alabama and West Virginia that used to be owned by Cliffs Natural Resources and that produce metallurgical coal used by the global steelmaking industry.
Now ERP hopes to tap into Minnesota. If approved by the bankruptcy judge, the purchase agreement would give ERP three Magnetation iron ore pelletizing plants. ERP would also gain Magnetation’s railroad loading facility in Grand Rapids and its pelletizing plant in Reynolds, Ind.
The deal, according to court records, would partly settle about $22.5 million in debts owed to a long line of Magnetation suppliers, contractors and tax outfits.
The possibility that ERP could backfill lost jobs on the Iron Range is good news and “makes me cautiously optimistic,” said Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB).
While the deal is complex, needs court approval and would have to close very quickly to satisfy some state royalty agreements, “I am feeling like there is hope here,” Phillips said.
“There are live bodies who worked here who have been terminated because of the liquidation,” he said. “So it would be really good if they could get this thing cranked up again in April or May. That would be good for our employment around here.”
During the last two years, Magnetation shuttered the iron-ore pelletizing-plants in Grand Rapids, Keewatin and Bovey due to a severe downturn in the taconite industry. Magnetation, which converts discarded waste tailings from defunct ore mines into concentrated iron pellets, filed for bankruptcy in May 2015. It shut down a fourth plant in September 2016 and received a court order in October that let it shut its last two plants — in Grand Rapids, Minn., and in Indiana.
The court also terminated a pellet purchase agreement in which Magnetation was to have provided iron-ore pellets to customer AK Steel.
Magnetation and its banker PJT Partners LP began working in January 2016 with 44 potential purchasers, one of whom they hoped would take over operations, keep the existing business alive and “avoid a free fall liquidation,” court records said. That plan did not work out.
In October, select assets were transferred to AK Steel, all operations wound down and a buyer was sought for the remaining assets.
If approved, ERP would purchase Magnetation’s rights, title and interest in “substantially all” remaining assets.
“After 19 months under bankruptcy protection, we are pleased to have reached this important milestone supported by a wide coalition of the stakeholders in this case,” said Magnetation CEO Larry Lehtinen in a statement announcing the deal with ERP.
ERP’s debut on the Iron Range comes at a time of renewed hope for the region. Minnesota’s northeastern pocket suffered more than 2,000 temporary layoffs during the brutal downturn of the U.S. iron ore and steel industry.
Today, ore prices are rising and new trade tariffs have slowed the flow of cheap steel into the United States. This summer, Cliffs Natural Resources reopened its shuttered United Taconite operations in Forbes/Eveleth and Northshore Mining taconite plant in Silver Bay. In August, it broke ground for a new $65 million pelletizing plant in Forbes.
IRRRB officials have been negotiating for weeks and hope to have final news about Magnetation’s properties soon, Phillips said.