Life in a Land of Iron

Children in Hibbing, Minn., and Palmer, Mich., grow up with their feet and legs covered in rusty, red-orange dust stirred up when they play outdoors.

They spend their summers sneaking into old mining sites to go cliff-diving. And their parents’ laundry, blackened by the taconite rock that contains small amounts of iron, always goes into the washing machine alone so it doesn’t turn every linen in the house gray.

For the people who live there, that is just the way it’s always been in the towns surrounded by Minnesota and Michigan’s active iron mines.

But it is problematic to predict life in northern Wisconsin will look the way it does in northern Minnesota or Michigan, now that Gov. Scott Walker has signed legislation intended to encourage construction of a taconite mine in Ashland and Iron counties. When mining began in Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range and Michigan’s Marquette Iron Range, regulations were nonexistent or unenforceable, so the culture and expectations of those residents were formed in the shadows of an entirely different type of mining operation than what would occur in northern Wisconsin.

However, communities in both states provide a glimpse at the real effects of modern mining and its trade-offs.

The towns and cities surrounding the mines are alive, but not all are thriving. Most downtowns are dominated by municipal buildings bought and paid for decades ago by mining companies trying to curry favor with locals and are populated largely by a few restaurants, bars and antique stores.

Mansions don’t line residential streets; instead, most residents live in modest clapboard houses — houses tinted by the black or red dust carried from mining sites when the wind blows just right. Their garages are filled with ATVs, fishing boats or snowmobiles bought and paid for with mining wages.

Residents are dependent on the mines that directly employ 5,000 people in both states and that pay them among the best wages around. The industry pumps an estimated $3.3 billion into Minnesota’s economy in good years, and $1.3 billion into Michigan’s.

Poverty and unemployment rates in mining communities still trend higher than in the rest of the state, but residents can’t imagine life without the industry. Everyone you meet has an uncle, mother or friend who works at one of the active mines that produced about 50 million tons of taconite pellets last year, shipped from the Midwest to the rest of the world.

Boom and bust

Most of the cities along the Mesabi Range in Minnesota and Marquette Range in Michigan were company towns, founded and built by mining companies to house, feed and educate miners and their families. In Minnesota, five active iron mines are clustered along the range within 60 miles of each other with a sixth under construction. The open-pit mines tend to be long and sprawling, preferring distance over the depth of Michigan’s two deep, circular iron mine pits.

Iron first was shipped from Minnesota in the 1880s, and from Michigan in the 1860s. That history and years of employment for one generation after another has instilled a deep loyalty to the industry in both areas.

Residents take pride in the mining history and culture: using “Hematites” and “Miners” as high school mascots, never failing to direct visitors to museums that recount the industry’s history or places to view an active mine.

They name their streets and buildings after the men who first brought mining to the area and erect statues of men toting picks and shovels and wearing helmets and headlamps.

“Everything around here is supported by the mines,” said Julia Gardner, a 35-year-old Hibbing, Minn., native.

On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, Gardner stood in front of her stepgrandmother’s white house with yellow trim, just a backyard away from a red mound of dirt marking the edge of Cliffs Natural Resources’ taconite mine property.

When Carol Montgomery moved into that house in 1977, she and her husband were searching for a quiet place to raise their nine children after a nomadic lifestyle that came with his military career. The white-sided home was the biggest they could afford, and the couple gave little thought to what the red-tinted hill hid from view.

At 11 a.m. every Wednesday, the china tea cups on Montgomery’s shelves rattle when Hibbing Taconite blasts through solid rock with explosives that free ore from the earth’s tenacious grip. Knickknacks fall to the ground, and Montgomery, now 75, dutifully picks them up and places them back on the shelves, where they rest until the next day’s blasting.

After more than 30 years, she has adjusted to the inconveniences of living near a mine.

Everyone in Hibbing and Palmer — and nearby towns that are just as dependent on the mines — seems to have similarly grown accustomed to the disruptions as well as the boom-and-bust cycles of the industry.

When times are good, people spend money in stores and restaurants or buy new toys to enjoy in the snow or local waterways. When the mines slow in response to dipping market demand, laying off or furloughing workers, other businesses suffer with them.

In downtown Ishpeming, Mich., Sandee Sundquist and her employees at Wilderness Sports think of the economic ups and downs connected to the mines as a gentle roller coaster. Her customers who work at the mines didn’t stop spending during a three-month furlough last year, but they bought cheaper fishing rods or hunting rifles than they did when the mines were churning out ore full time.

“They provide really, really good jobs for our community,” said Sundquist, whose father and husband both worked in and retired from the mines. “I can’t say enough good things actually about ’em. And they also, the company as a whole, does work with us, too, where they’ll provide safety awards to their employees and give them like a gift certificate (to a local business).”

Buying favor

Those small gestures don’t compare to the city halls, schools and hotels built by mining companies in the 1800s as iron mining boomed in both states. But those monuments remain, with crystal chandeliers and marble flooring you won’t find in other small cities, as a reminder of the goodwill that companies still work to build in mining towns.

Instead of elaborate municipal construction projects, companies today sponsor community events, hold breakfasts for local officials to get updates on the local mines and allow their unmined property to be used for snowmobiling or skiing in the winter and hiking during the rest of the year.

In Minnesota, four companies operate or are building iron mines: Cliffs Natural Resources, U.S. Steel, ArcelorMittal and, the newest, Essar Steel. Only Cliffs Natural Resources still mines iron in Michigan.

A Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team was unable to visit any of the mining sites while reporting this story. But in Hibbing, a winding, snow-packed road leads to a cliff that provides a glimpse at the Hibbing Taconite mine operated by Cliffs Natural Resources.

The canyon opens below your feet, with clear ridges carved into the rock by years of explosions that freed the hard taconite rock that then was carted by trucks the size of an average house to a processing plant. It seems to take forever for trucks to arrive back at the bottom of the pit, where drivers pick up loads of rock before crawling back up the never-ending road.

Life in mining territory comes with unavoidable trade-offs, obstacles that locals and state officials seem to accept as the cost of doing business. In Minnesota, for example, the state Department of Transportation has to get approval for proposed changes to a segment of a highway from mining company Cliffs Natural Resources because the road would pass through an area the company hopes to mine.

Underground mines, out of use in the Midwest for decades, forced officials in Negaunee, Mich., to fence off entire portions of the city for fear that the ground was unstable.

Portions have been converted now to walking trails with historical markers for old mining sites and equipment.

But tough criticism of the mining industry is rare. Bob Tammen, one of the few outspoken critics, worked as an electrical engineer at mines across the Midwest, including at most of Michigan and Minnesota’s largest operations.

Now retired, Tammen works with Minnesota’s clean water movement and frequently travels with his wife, Pat, from their home in northern Minnesota to legislative hearings in St. Paul and events hosted by environmental groups in other states.

After a lifetime of working and living around mines, Tammen said he has no faith that an economy rooted in mining can sustain a community. He’s frustrated by rebates a state agency gave to mining companies in Minnesota, the cost of infrastructure needed to keep mines running, and the industry’s growing dependence on machinery and automation.

“We’ve had mining in Minnesota for 130 years … and we still can’t create a decent community in northern Minnesota,” Tammen said. “So when I talk to people in Wisconsin, I say, ‘Well, if you want a mining economy, be sure you’re doing something else to create a healthy community.’”

Rick Cannata, mayor of Hibbing, said local officials are trying to bring other industries into northern Minnesota. Cannata grew up in Hibbing, watching his father work in construction on many of the taconite processing plants.

Mining does have an up-and-down cycle, but employees don’t move away during layoffs or slow periods, Cannata said. Local businesses dig in and get through those times, with each new generation opting to stay in the area. He said he thinks the mining industry is responsible for that, “for keeping families on the range.”

“It’s good for the economy, good for the towns,” Cannata said. “I’ll never speak against the mines.”

Dirty and dangerous

In Michigan, shoppers at the one-room Handy Grocery store in the unincorporated community of Palmer had one word for the effects of living across a two-lane highway from the Empire Mine: dirty. The corners of every home and business are darkened by black dust that blows through town as taconite rock is crushed so iron ore can be extracted.

Soon after every big snowfall, the white snow starts to turn gray. For the men and women who work at the mines, the dust is unavoidable.

Dennis Hendrickson, who walked into the Handy on a February Sunday after an eight-hour shift at the Empire Mine, was covered in the dust. It had worked its way through his clothes and under his nails.

Hendrickson, who’s employed by a contracting company that crushes taconite rock at both the Empire Mine and the nearby Tilden Mine, joked that people in Palmer can’t hang their clothes outside to dry or they’ll have to be washed again.

Hendrickson, 47, wore a navy blue and yellow sweatshirt with the University of Michigan’s logo across the chest, and blue jeans with red dust clinging to the clothing’s folds. His boots, originally dark brown, have a permanent red tint.

Work at the mines pays well, with a solid benefit and retirement package intact in most workers’ contracts, and that’s one reason there’s always a line of willing applicants for job openings at the mines.

The average wage for the mining industry, including for engineers and managers, was about $56,000 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Drilling down through the mining economy, construction workers average $51,510, equipment maintenance jobs average $54,680, production jobs including welders average $48,380 and transportation jobs average $46,850. Proponents often factor in overtime and benefits packages, estimating an average mining job can pay somewhere between $60,000 and $90,000.

Kim Bengry, a welder at the Empire Mine, said people shouldn’t forget that the work still has risks. Bengry, 59, has worked in the mines for 39 years and seen close calls and serious accidents that caused permanent injuries for co-workers.

“(They don’t know) how dangerous it is,” said Bengry, seated at the Cascade Inn in Palmer on a Monday in February.

In 2011, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration reported 36 fatalities at U.S. mining sites, including coal mines. Four of those occurred at metallic mines, including iron ore. Metallic mines, including those in Michigan and Minnesota, reported 987 injuries in 2011.

The mines provide more safety training now than when he started working, and companies provide equipment for workers, Bengry said, including boots for everyone and flame-retardant gloves, jackets and pants for welders.

“We’ve been lucky that we haven’t had many fatalities in the last few years, but we’ve had a couple,” he said. “And a lot of times, it’s mistakes, guys not really paying attention to what they’re doing.”

Those risks don’t seem to be discouraging young men, and some women, from entering technical college programs and seeking jobs in the mining industry.

Bradley Wills, an 18-year-old from Babbitt, Minn., is in his first year of the millwright program at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College’s campus in Eveleth.

He visited the lab where students learn how to weld, guide large cranes through obstacle courses and operate the front-end loaders and trucks that dig and transport taconite from the mine pits to processing plants. With a family history in mining, Wills didn’t need much convincing that it was the right path for him.

In third grade, he drew a picture of himself working as a miner.

“That’s what everybody’s dad is,” Wills said. “I graduated (high school) with around 36 kids and over half the class’s parents are in mines. That’s the way of life up here.”

He said he’s hoping to get a job with a mining company doing machinery maintenance or railroad track and train maintenance after finishing the two-year program.

Minnesota mining companies are projecting there’s enough iron to keep people employed for 75 years.

“I plan on staying here the rest of my life,” Wills said.