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Expanding iron mine returns Minnesota to its road-moving ways

A number of Highway 53 relocation scenarios involve building bridges over the Rouchleau mine pit near Virginia, Minn. Here, two drilling barges are collecting core samples and data to help the Minnesota Department of Transportation determine which scenario will be the best option to relocate the Highway. Derek Montgomery/For MPR News1 / 4
Vehicles head south on Highway 53 adjacent to United Taconite's mine Thursday, July 17, 2014 near Virginia, Minn. This section of highway faces relocation after United Taconite and RGGS Land and Minerals gave the Minnesota Department of Transportation notice they will be terminating easement rights to portions of Highway 53 between 2nd Avenue and Highway 135 in Virginia. Derek Montgomery/For MPR News2 / 4
A floating barge run by IDEA drilling collects core samples Thursday, July 17, 2014 in the Rochleau mine pit near Virginia, Minn. to help the Minnesota Department of Transportation determine which scenario will be the best option to relocate a portion of Highway 53 after United Taconite and RGGS Land and Minerals terminated easements rights to the highway between Highway 135 and 2nd Avenue near Virginia. Derek Montgomery/For MPR News3 / 4
IDEA drilling workers collect core samples from the bottom of the Rochleau mine pit Thursday, July 17, 2014 near Virginia, Minn. The workers were collecting the samples to help the Minnesota Department of Transportation determine which scenario will be the best option to relocate a portion of Highway 53 after United Taconite and RGGS Land and Minerals terminated easements rights to the highway between Highway 135 and 2nd Avenue near Virginia. Derek Montgomery/For MPR News4 / 4

Virginia - Every day, 10,000 cars zip along Highway 53, one of the Iron Range's most vital transportation arteries.

Just a few hundred feet from the roadway, between Virginia and Eveleth, hidden by a strip of trees, the earth falls away into a mammoth mine pit, where four-story tall trucks scrape red ore out of the ground. The proximity of the road to the excavation site points to the need to move the highway away from the expanding mine – a project that could cost more than $400 million.

"If you were in our mine pit now you would see that we are as close to that highway as we can be," said Sandy Karnowski, a spokeswoman for Cliffs Natural Resources, which operates United Taconite.

Four years ago Cliffs approached the Minnesota Department of Transportation about moving the highway. When the state first built the road in 1960, it agreed to move it if the mineral rights owner ever wanted to access the ore underneath.

"If United Taconite cannot mine the ore under the current highway, it would reduce the life of mine, which would impact the jobs and the economic impact we have to the area," Karnowski said.

It may seem crazy, to move an entire highway, but it's not as unusual as it sounds. On the Iron Range, there's a long history of moving roads – and entire towns -- to make way for mining.

But when state transportation officials looked for options, one of them -- a plan to skirt the highway west around Eveleth – infuriated officials in Virginia and other Iron Range towns.

A big problem was nearly everywhere else engineers turned, they ran into a mine pit, MnDot Project Manager Pat Huston said.

"The options are very, very limited and they're all extremely challenging," he said.

The challenges extend to an area deep in the abandoned Rouchleau Pit, next to the city of Virginia, where MnDot is now exploring.

Since mining stopped there in the late 1970s, the pit has slowly filled with azure water, 300 feet deep in places. Crumbly red cliffs jut out of the water.

Transportation officials have hired IDEA Drilling to test the rock at the bottom of the pit. Workers on two barges are drilling deep into the rock at the bottom of the lake. Huston said the samples will help MnDot estimate the cost and complexity of building a span across the pit.

"If we decide to build a bridge on this alignment, we're going to try to get steel supports down through this old mine fill into hard rock, what we want to learn, what tooling does it take to get down through there," he said. "Because this is some of the hardest rock in the world."

MnDot is considering backfilling part of the pit with rock to support the new highway.

A third alignment also is in the mix, at least officially. That route would carry traffic across a bridge over the existing mine operation. But Cliffs strongly opposes that option on the grounds that it raises significant environmental, safety and business concerns.

If built, the bridge would be the tallest in the state -- 200 feet off the water's surface -- about the height of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Until you're actually standing here, it's hard on Google Earth or even in pictures to understand the magnitude of this," Huston said.

So far, the state has set aside $90 million for the project and during the last legislative session legislators allocated an additional $19 million in state bonding funds to pay for moving utilities along the current right of way.

Current cost projections for the highway project range from $240 million to $460 million.

State Rep. Jason Metsa is confident the legislature will find the funding.

"It was something everyone was prepared for. We’ve known about it for a long time," said Metsa, DFL-Virginia. "Our mining companies have moved entire cities up here before."

Indeed, in 1919 workers began moving the city of Hibbing to make way for a growing mine.

"You've got a town of around 15, 16 thousand, then everyone's got to move? Just picture it," said Leonard Hirsch, a member of the Hibbing Historical Society. "It's hard to grasp really."

When Hirsch looks over the vast Hull Rust Mine Pit, he can imagine where the old downtown stood a century ago. Further away from the pit's edge, he points out the old foundations of entire houses that were moved.

"They would come in, put long timbers under them, hook it up to a steam tractor, and just move them until they got to their foundations," Hirsch said. "The ladies would sometimes move in their houses, and when they got them set back down on their foundations, there wouldn’t even be a crack in the wall sometimes. They were that good."

Moving infrastructure to make way for mining continues today on the Iron Range, even beyond the Highway 53 reroute. Near the town of Mountain Iron, U.S. Steel is spending $3.2 million to move St. Louis County Highway 102 to make way for an expansion at MinnTac, the state's largest mine.

Roberta Dwyer, another project manager on the Highway 53 project, said there are about 75 other easement agreements across the Iron Range where the state could be on the hook to move a roadway. Many are not near active mines, and would likely be far simpler than the Highway 53 reroute.

The department is examining each of them to determine the likelihood it may be mined someday, and the cost of buying out the mineral rights.

But one easement, under Highway 169 between Hibbing and Chisholm, is located next to Hibbing Taconite. Cliffs Spokeswoman Sandy Karnowski said the company doesn't know yet whether it will expand in that direction.

The company's more immediate concern is Highway 53. Karnowski said Cliffs still hopes MnDot can meet its May, 2017 deadline to move the thoroughfare.

Huston said that's highly unlikely. "But we're doing everything we possibly can to learn as much as we can to narrow the options down and get this project going," he said.