In another positive sign for Minnesota’s Iron Range, the parent company of United Taconite has started production at its new $75 million Mustang “superflux” pellet plant in Forbes, Minn.
Ohio-based Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. said the project “was flawlessly executed,” on budget and on schedule after nine months of construction. And firing up the plant equipment had no hiccups on its first day.
“Building a new facility on budget, without any lost-time accidents, and in only nine months through the Minnesota winter is no small undertaking,” said Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves.
The new plant was built adjacent to United Taconite’s existing 52-year-old iron-ore pelletizing plant and came as welcome news for a region battered by a two-year downturn in the iron ore mining industry.
Because of a global iron pricing depression, the older United Taconite plant in Forbes, an unincorporated community about 10 miles southwest of Eveleth, Minn., sat idled from about August 2015 to August 2016, affecting about 420 workers. But last summer, pricing relief and new U.S. trade tariffs that penalized steel dumpers such as China, Korea, England and Brazil helped rally the industry in the United States.
United Taconite reopened late last summer. Shortly thereafter, Cliffs announced a new customer contract that demanded it build a new ore pelletizing facility capable of producing an advanced grade of iron pellet called “superflux.”
The construction project that followed gave United Taconite a new storage facility, new rail loading systems and tracks, new slurry tanks, furnace burners, vacuum pumps and transport conveyors that will help make the new type of pellet.
Combined, the new and old facilities in Forbes, plus United Taconite’s iron ore mine in Eveleth will have 475 workers, said spokeswoman Patricia Persico. The new project “gives stability to both jobs and workers,” she said. “We are replacing some production, retaining our existing workforce and providing stability, which is good for the region and the people.”
With the expansion now done, “we have earned the right to continue to be in the Range for the years to come,” said Goncalves, acknowledging that Cliffs has spent the last few years restructuring.
“I am also very thankful for the strong support of the state of Minnesota throughout this project’s development,” he said. “As we expand in the Iron Range, we appreciate our established working relationships with our elected officials and their ongoing support for our business endeavors.”
Cliffs will host a ribbon-cutting event for the new facility on May 30. Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are expected to speak, as is U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.
The customized “superflux” pellets being made at the new plant are promised to Cliffs’ longtime customer ArcelorMittal. The new shipments will replace supplies Cliffs had made at its recently closed Empire Mine in Michigan. About 12 Michigan workers have relocated to Minnesota to work at UTAC’s facilities here.
Under a 10-year-supply agreement, Cliffs will remain the sole pellet supplier for ArcelorMittal’s Indiana Harbor West and Cleveland Works steelmaking facilities.