Virginia – Every day, 10,000 cars zip along Highway 53, one of the Iron Range’s most vital transportation arteries.
Just a few hundred feet from the roadway, between Virginia and Eveleth, hidden by a strip of trees, the earth falls away into a mammoth mine pit, where four-story tall trucks scrape red ore out of the ground. The proximity of the road to the excavation site points to the need to move the highway away from the expanding mine – a project that could cost more than $400 million.
“If you were in our mine pit now you would see that we are as close to that highway as we can be,” said Sandy Karnowski, a spokeswoman for Cliffs Natural Resources, which operates United Taconite.
Four years ago Cliffs approached the Minnesota Department of Transportation about moving the highway. When the state first built the road in 1960, it agreed to move it if the mineral rights owner ever wanted to access the ore underneath.
“If United Taconite cannot mine the ore under the current highway, it would reduce the life of mine, which would impact the jobs and the economic impact we have to the area,” Karnowski said.
It may seem crazy, to move an entire highway, but it’s not as unusual as it sounds. On the Iron Range, there’s a long history of moving roads – and entire towns — to make way for mining.
But when state transportation officials looked for options, one of them — a plan to skirt the highway west around Eveleth – infuriated officials in Virginia and other Iron Range towns.
A big problem was nearly everywhere else engineers turned, they ran into a mine pit, MnDot Project Manager Pat Huston said.
“The options are very, very limited and they’re all extremely challenging,” he said.
The challenges extend to an area deep in the abandoned Rouchleau Pit, next to the city of Virginia, where MnDot is now exploring.
Since mining stopped there in the late 1970s, the pit has slowly filled with azure water, 300 feet deep in places. Crumbly red cliffs jut out of the water.
Transportation officials have hired IDEA Drilling to test the rock at the bottom of the pit. Workers on two barges are drilling deep into the rock at the bottom of the lake. Huston said the samples will help MnDot estimate the cost and complexity of building a span across the pit.
“If we decide to build a bridge on this alignment, we’re going to try to get steel supports down through this old mine fill into hard rock, what we want to learn, what tooling does it take to get down through there,” he said. “Because this is some of the hardest rock in the world.”
MnDot is considering backfilling part of the pit with rock to support the new highway.
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