DULUTH – With uncertainty hanging over the long-term future of the two largest Iron Range taconite operations, Gov. Tim Walz is urging the companies that own the mines to work together to protect jobs.

"Closure of any mine would be devastating to the individuals who work at the facility and to those in the surrounding community who depend on the mines," Walz wrote in a letter to U.S. Steel CEO David Burritt and Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves on Monday. "Both facilities are critical to the ongoing economic success of Minnesota's Iron Range."

Hibbing Taconite, which employs about 740 people, is expected to run out of ore by 2024. Cleveland-Cliffs became majority owner of the mine after buying ArcelorMittal USA late last year.

The expansion of HibTac in recent years has resulted in the relocation of a road and a mine overlook to tap reserves, and a 3-mile power line relocation is planned to open up another chunk of ore.

Further expansion is complicated by competing interests in nearby mineral rights and city boundaries.

Walz wrote that there are nearby ore deposits "that are not currently owned or leased by the owner/operator of the mine to which the ore is most proximate" and requested a phone call with company leaders.

"My agencies and I stand ready to provide assistance to U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs as they work toward a path forward," Walz wrote.

Minntac has ore to mine for the foreseeable future, though Walz wrote: "U.S. Steel has expressed interest in securing leases for additional high-quality ore that would solidify the long-term options for the mine."

U.S. Steel owns a 14.7% share in HibTac and the entirety of Minntac, which is the largest taconite operation on the Iron Range and employs about 1,400 people.

U.S. Steel has optioned a 25% stake in Minntac to Canadian steel producer Stelco.

With the ArcelorMittal USA acquisition, U.S. Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs are the only companies currently mining ore on the Iron Range — though long-stalled plans at a half-built plant in Nashwauk started creeping forward again last year.

The pandemic caused a drop in steel demand that resulted in more than 1,700 temporary layoffs at taconite plants last year. Now all six mines are fully operational and supplying ore to steelmakers around the Great Lakes and beyond.

Goncalves recently told investors a "resilient steel pricing environment and the growing number of steel companies competing for an increasingly scarce scrap supply in 2021 and beyond" bodes well for business.

U.S. Steel posted a $1.16 billion loss for 2020, but Burritt said in a recent earnings call: "I am bullish about the strong market we are seeing."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496