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We will survive this mining downturn, too

We’ve lived through this before. Survived it. And the challenges to Northeastern Minnesota now are similar to the challenges in 2001, the last time “we wondered if we were going to have an iron ore industry in the state of Minnesota,” as Frank Ongaro said at a chamber forum Tuesday in Duluth.

Then he was president of the Iron Mining Association. Now he’s executive director of Mining Minnesota, which advocates for the environmentally responsible mining of copper, nickel and other precious metals. He knows more than a thing or two about the industry, its incredible highs and its devastating lows.

“We’ve been interdependent — Duluth, Northeastern Minnesota and the Iron Range — for 100 years. (The mining industry) has had its ups and downs. It’ll continue to have its ups and downs. … (Right now) we’re at a bottom,” Ongaro said. “But be assured, we have had these cycles, and we will come out of this cycle at some point, at some level.”

To do so we’ll have to wait out low global commodities prices. And we’ll have to overcome steel dumping, as much a threat to the future of Minnesota mining in 2001 as it is now, Ongaro said. It’s illegal, but that doesn’t stop China, South Korea and other nations from subsidizing their steelmaking and from keeping their steelmaking costs down by snubbing environmental, human-rights, health, safety, child-labor, unemployment and other protections. Their cheaper-made steel simply squeezes the U.S. iron ore, taconite and steel industries out of the global market.

Clearly, tariffs aren’t strong enough and international trade laws and other measures aren’t being enforced with enough vigor to prevent the destruction of steel-

dumping. That includes laws that prohibit steel buyers, even those in the U.S., from acquiring illegally dumped steel.

Elected leaders have been trying to impress those challenges on

difference-makers from St. Paul to D.C. In December, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough visited the Iron Range to see the devastating effects of steel-dumping firsthand, but little if anything came of the visit. Closer to home, the Minnesota Legislature hasn’t even been able to be convinced of the need for a special session to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range mining employees.

Still, “Give credit to our elected officials,” Ongaro said. “(They’re) trying to do everything they can to support the industry.”

What should the Minnesota Legislature accomplish this coming session to help? As it turns out, other than finally doing the humane thing by extending those unemployment benefits, not a thing, according to Ongaro.

“We’re telling the administration, we’re telling regional legislators, we’re telling state agencies that there’s absolutely nothing that we want or need from the 2016 legislative session other than leave the system alone,” he said. “It’s solid and strong. Regulatory processes are in place. It’s working. It takes way too long, but it’s open, it’s transparent, and there’s public participation. Let the system work.”

Beyond being slow, Minnesota’s tough

environmental-review process certainly seems to have been working with regard to PolyMet, the company proposing to open Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine. Its plans have been reviewed for more than 10 years, including being sent back for changes and improvements that’ll better protect Minnesota waters and air. The company now is on the doorstep for permits that will allow it to begin operations.

“What a great opportunity for the entire state of Minnesota,” Ongaro said of PolyMet. “You talk about this region, you talk about economic development, there’s no single better economic development opportunity for this region of the state than PolyMet Mining: 300-plus jobs for 20-plus years. That’s a generation. That’s not short-term. That’s not a small amount of jobs. Plus, (there’ll be) another 600-plus spin-off jobs, as determined by the University of Minnesota. We’re talking a thousand jobs for this region for a substantial number of decades, and we’re talking about great, great-paying jobs for this region. … It’s a tremendous opportunity for this region and for all the vendors and suppliers, and not just in Northeastern Minnesota and not just in Duluth but from all across the state.”

It may not look like it right now — just as it didn’t in 2001 — but mining has a future in Minnesota, according to a guy who knows more than a thing or two about the peaks-and-valleys industry.

“There are going to continue to be opportunities,” Ongaro said, and mining in Minnesota “will be around for a long time.”

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