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Minorca joins wave of Range mining cutbacks

The mine near Virginia already had planned to cease production in April for maintenance work. On Monday, employees learned the plant plans to close through July.

Employees of yet another Iron Range mine learned of an impending shutdown Monday.

For months, workers at the Minorca mine near Virginia have known that the taconite operation would cease production in mid-April to allow for scheduled maintenance work. But the mine's owner, Arcelor Mittal, recently revealed plans to extend that shutdown through July, according to Ray Pierce, president of United Steelworkers Local 6115. The union represents about 300 people working at the mine and processing plant.

Minorca is just the latest mine to cut back production. Last week, Cliffs Natural Resources announced plans to temporarily idle Hibbing Taconite Co. and Northshore Mining Co., putting more than 1,000 people out of work.

The week before that, U.S. Steel Corp. disclosed it would temporarily lay off about half its work force at Minntac, putting about 590 people out of work for an indefinite period of time.

Back in December, Keewatin Taconite Co. (also a U.S. Steel operation) became the first Iron Range plant to cease production. It remains idled.

Even those plants that have managed to avoid shutdowns have had to make adjustments. Workers at United Taconite in Forbes and Eveleth have agreed to a 20 percent cut in hours.

"It feels like the worst of times," said Jeff Damm, a Virginia City Council member and former firefighter. "It's been a total shock to the system."

Damm explained that Virginia is surrounded by mining, with Minorca to the north, United Taconite to the south and Minntac to the west. And he said the influence of mining on the local economy is difficult to overstate.

"Some of our downtown businesses are really starting to feel it," he said.

"It's been pretty slow," said Jamie Wright, describing business lately at Jammer's Cafe, which she co-owns and operates in Virginia. "It seems that just about everyone's family works for a mine in some way or another."

Wright's business partner, Janet Harjamaki, can attest to that as her husband works at Hibtac, where a shutdown also looms.

"We don't know exactly how many people will be affected and for how long," Harjamaki said. "The uncertainty is the hardest part."

"We just try to keep everyone in our thoughts and prayers," she said. "We're going to stick together and hope we all pull through."

Craig Pagel, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, remains hopeful the production slowdowns will be short-lived.

"You've got to remember the mines are set up to follow the market," he said, explaining why taconite operations have been quick to cut back production sharply.

Pagel said many mines will use down time to tackle maintenance issues so they will be well prepared to spring back into action. He's encouraged by the massive economic stimulus packages now taking shape in both the U.S. and China, where more than $580 million will be invested.

"I think you will see mines and the steel industry respond very quickly when they see the right market conditions again," Pagel said.