Cliffs’ CEO talks of reopening Empire Mine

MARQUETTE — Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. CEO Lourenco Goncalves said Friday that the company is close to announcing the reopening of the Empire Mine in Richmond Township.

His comments came during Cliffs’ 2018 Fourth-Quarter and Full-year Earnings conference call, accessible as a webcast on the company’s website.

“We have opportunities. We have one that’s actionable as we speak, and that’s Empire,” Goncalves said during the call. “We are finalizing our studies to bring back Empire. Remember, we never shut down Empire, we put Empire on indefinite idle, which means that under the right circumstances we would bring Empire back. We still have a few I’s to dot, a few T’s to cross, but I am very pleased to inform, for the first time actually in a public forum, that we are close to announce the resurgence of Empire.

“And that should be great news for Michigan, and for the great people of Michigan, to know that Empire has a great chance of being brought back into operation in the not-so-long future down the road, because Empire would really mitigate a big portion of the hole in our supply of blast furnace pellets as we supply HBI (hot briquetted iron).”

The Cleveland-based mining company has been weighing its options between reopening the idled Empire Mine or opening a potential mining site in Nashwauk, Minnesota.

Cliffs filed suit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in August for refusing to modify mining permits to preclude Mesabi Minerals from conducting mining operations on properties owned by Cliffs after the company was awarded more than 3,700 acres at the former Essar site by a federal bankruptcy judge in July.

Goncalves praised the actions of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz during Friday’s call for decisions he had made regarding the former Essar site, calling the company a “virus.”

“As soon as this virus is eradicated from Minnesota we are ready to step in and take care of Nashuak, but these things take long,” Goncalves said. “I might not be able to do Nashuak ahead of Empire, actually Empire is ahead of Nashuak at this point.”

United Steelworkers Local 4940 President Chad Korpi said Goncalves’s statements, although they are similar to the message the CEO has delivered in the past, make him “cautiously optimistic.”

“We know it will be based on economic conditions,” Korpi said. “It’s just reassurance to staying positive. I’ve got a good feeling about it, you know. I feel like things are starting to play into our favor for it to happen in Michigan over Minnesota.”

He said he expects an estimated 150 employees, who were among approximately 300 laid off when the Empire Mine was indefinitely idled in 2016, would be able to return to work if the mine reopened.

Goncalves called USW membership “partners for life.”

“The good thing is that, from both states, Michigan and Minnesota, we have the support of the workforce,” Goncalves said. “We are going to bring back Empire, and hopefully we are going to own Nashuak, so for the next 10 years we are going to be busy bringing more production to the United States of America.”

In a prepared statement issued today, state Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said during discussions with personnel from CCI’s Michigan Operations on Monday, she was made aware that there will be a “pretty significant pellet shortage in the market this coming year.”

“It is my understanding that Cliffs is still in negotiations regarding possible partnerships to reopen the Empire,” Cambensy said. “If successful, they will move ahead with the other main factors they need in conjunction with the state of Michigan and major energy corporations to make the possibility of reopening the Empire a reality. I remain heavily invested in helping Cliffs secure the support they need from the state at this time. The Marquette Iron Range and the jobs they bring to our region are undeniably some of the most critically important high-paying jobs that legislators need to fight to bring back and sustain. Cliffs and the people of the 109th (District) have my full support as they move forward to do so.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.

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