Cleveland-Cliffs' CEO again demanded on Tuesday, March 5, the state take mineral leases for the Nashwauk mine site from Mesabi Metallics and give them to Cliffs.
During a "State of the Company" luncheon at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm Thursday, Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves said it was up to Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, to give his company mineral leases for the former Essar Steel site in Nashwauk.
If given the leases, now in the hands of Mesabi Metallics, the company trying to revive the long-delayed project, Goncalves said plans for the site still include a mine, pellet plant and a hot-briquetted iron plant.
"I have hope that Gov. Walz will fix what was broken by the previous administration," Goncalves said. "It's up to him. It's an easy win."
Goncalves often blames former Gov. Mark Dayton for killing Cliffs' plans for the site because of his unwillingness to transfer the leases after a Delaware bankruptcy judge ultimately picked Mesabi Metallics to take over the Essar site in July 2017.
Cliffs has leases throughout the Nashwauk site, creating a complicated quilt of ownership with Mesabi Metallics.
Goncalves said he needed more support from people in the room Thursday, namely local politicians.
"I don't feel like I have, from the local politicians, the support that I need and Cleveland-Cliffs deserves," Goncalves said.
Goncalves singled out Itasca County Commissioner Ben DeNucci, who he said didn't want Cliffs in Nashwauk.
"That's not true," DeNucci said. "We're open for business."
The DNR and Walz did not return requests for comment from the News Tribune on Tuesday.
Cliffs has previously called on the state to hand over the leases, including through a lawsuit that challenged the DNR's refusal to modify, transfer or revoke Mesabi Metallics' permit to mine at the site.
Asked by a reporter if Cliffs would drop the lawsuit against the DNR, Goncalves said "we are in discussions right now."
"We're talking, but it doesn't mean that we have resolved," Goncalves said. "We're going to have everything resolved when those leases are assigned to Cleveland-Cliffs."
Goncalves said he hasn't personally interacted with Walz since he took office in January or has met Sarah Strommen, the new DNR commissioner, but that Cliffs staff is interacting with the DNR.
"I feel extremely good about the direction that the DNR is going under Gov. Walz," Goncalves said. "I believe that the new commissioner is trying to do the right thing."
Goncalves last publicly called for the leases during former Gov. Dayton's administration and before the DNR moved to debar Essar.
At the time, former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr responded in a letter saying it was unlikely to revoke or transfer Mesabi Metallics' leases.
"DNR cannot simply withdraw the leases without sending the project back to square one," Landwehr wrote in an Aug. 16 Mesabi Daily News opinion column.
But the DNR, now led by Strommen, a Walz appointee, seems to have taken a more aggressive approach toward the Nashwauk site. In January, the DNR moved to ban Essar from doing any business in the state after the company settled $260 million of the debt it left behind to buy its way back into the project.
In the letter sent to Mesabi Metallics CEO Gary Heasley, Strommen wrote that the DNR's goal for the Nashwauk site is to have an operational mine, pellet plant and value-added facility so taxes could be generated for Minnesota schools, public universities and Iron Range communities.
Strommen added later that Mesabi Metallics permit and leases were under review, hinting that the company could lose the leases.
"DNR is continuing its review to determine whether Mesabi Metallics is in full compliance with its permits and current mineral lease requirements," Strommen wrote at the time.
Goncalves said he wouldn't wait forever for the state to act but offered no timeline Tuesday.