NASHWAUK — On a brisk, breezy October day, 18 big cranes reached for the sky over the sprawling Essar Steel Minnesota taconite plant just north of town where more than 700 construction workers were on the job.
Iron beams and steel siding hung from cables as ironworkers in bucket-lifts grabbed dangling pieces and secured them into place, players in what looked like the world’s largest erector set.
The first thing that strikes the eye is the size of the project — everything about the work is big — from the 240-ton capacity ore-hauling trucks being readied to the massive building that will house the taconite-baking furnaces and the hulking, 9-story-deep underground concrete edifice where boulders of raw ore will be crushed to a useable size.
The $1.9 billion taconite mine and processing plant is among the largest and most expensive construction projects in Minnesota history.
Progress is obvious. Drill rigs and giant ore shovel loaders are being tuned up. The furnaces that will bake the pellets hard are being assembled. A ceremony marking the first major explosion ripping taconite iron ore off the mine wall could come within weeks.
Buddy Harvick, a Texas native who now lives in South Range, just south of Superior, was working for Grand Rapids-based Tristan Fabricators LLC, one of dozens of contractors on the job. Harvick was helping curl and weld a giant piece of steel for another big component at Essar.
“This is a huge project,” Harvick said “It’s good to have this much work close to home.”
It will be Minnesota’s first new full-scale taconite mine and processing plant in more than 35 years, with an easy-access, high-quality ore deposit that could last 80 years. (The mine and processing are at nearly the same site as the old Butler Taconite operation which was closed and dismantled in the mid-1980s.)
Despite a decade of delays and a constant string of controversies, the Essar Steel Minnesota project now appears headed toward reality. The question seems no longer if the long-delayed Essar project will be completed but when, with the company promising its first freshly-baked pellets rolling off the line in mid-to-late 2016.
“It will be 180 rail cars of taconite per day, 365 days,” said Mitch Brunfelt, the company’s director of government and public affairs. The plant can access both CN and BNSF tracks to move the ore to Lake Superior for shipment.
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