Once, a few years ago, I was overcome with the urge to climb a roadside berm at an Iron Range taconite mine. I drove by this spot all the time, but couldn’t picture what was on the other side.
So I did it. (Don’t try this at home kids). I scrambled up the side to peer over the rampart. I’d seen mine pits before, but this was a tailings pond. Picture a vast lake surrounded by martian landscape spanning the entirety of your peripheral vision. The groaning engines in the pit miles away were the only sound.
I was overcome by the loneliness of it all. I came prepared to evade security. But there were no humans here. Not one.Despite recent struggles, iron mining remains the most productive industry here along Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Range.
The ability to mine low-grade iron ore once regarded as waste has expanded the life of Iron Range mining into a new century, perhaps beyond. In fact, the region can produce almost as much iron ore now as it did during the taconite heyday of the 1970s. It can, but it typically doesn’t.
Two truths weigh on our relationship with iron mining. Mining today requires a small fraction of the workers needed 50 years ago. Mining low-grade ore also creates far more waste product — the rocky byproducts of iron ore production that companies pile along the edges of their pits or douse in those massive tailings ponds. Mining companies spend vast time, energy and money to make market-ready products while also mitigating the environmental impacts of the waste rock.
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