ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The operator of an Iron Range taconite plant in Keewatin announced Thursday it will temporarily halt operations in May to deal with a mismatch in inventory and demand, putting 412 jobs in doubt and fanning calls for regulatory changes at the state Capitol.
Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp attributed its decision to “challenging market conditions that reflect the cyclical nature of the industry.” It’s the latest blow in the area. Last month, Minnesota iron ore producer Magnetation said it would idle a plant in Keewatin that employs about 50 people. Keewatin has roughly 1,000 people.
The Keetac workers have been notified about the idling and been told the number of affected employees will depend on operational and maintenance needs.
U.S. Steel said in its announcement that it wouldn’t have an immediate bearing on iron ore pellet production at a plant in nearby Mountain Iron.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who represents a northern Minnesota district, said the recent closures add to his legislative push for eased regulations for mining operations.
“We’ve got big trouble,” Bakk said. “I’d be distraught if I wasn’t so angry because we’ve been ringing this bell for years and can’t get anyone to listen around here.”
He specifically mentioned bills to lessen the cost of electricity for major plants given the power-intensive process for producing ore pellets and to delay enforcement of a sulfate standard designed to protect wild rice. Defenders of the standards warn that easing them could provoke action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Bring it on. Bring on the lawsuit,” Bakk said.
Bakk said he planned to raise his concerns with Gov. Mark Dayton during a meeting scheduled for Friday.
State Rep. Carly Melin, a Hibbing Democrat, said she’s been in contact with the area steelworkers union and will work to connect dislocated employees with benefits.
“Unfortunately, this situation is not an unfamiliar experience for the Iron Range,” Melin said.
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