Tuesday, October 23, 2007 By Aaron Brown
Today the mine is buzzing with activity - but not long ago, it seemed doomed. In early 2003 it went bankrupt and 450 men were laid off. The Iron Range had been haemorrhaging jobs ever since the 1980s, when demand for iron ore began to shrink - along with the US steel industry.
"There were no prospects at that time for reopening the mine - it looked fairly bleak," recalls Joe Strlekar, president of the local branch of the United Steelworkers union at the time. "A larger mine than ours had closed two years earlier and put 1,400 people out of work, so there was a lot of bitterness."
But then, almost out of the blue, China came to the rescue. Not long after the mine closure, the receivers got a phone call from agents in Hong Kong representing a Chinese company called Laiwu Steel which was looking for new investments.
They had never heard of Laiwu before, but they contacted their congressman in Washington DC, Jim Oberstar - who was then straight on the phone to his friend, the Chinese ambassador. Within months, Oberstar had hammered out a three-way deal to get the iron ore to China.
The congressman, who himself comes from a family of miners, was all too aware of the vulnerability of the Iron Range. He had already seen undercutting from Brazil - what he didn't anticipate was today's demand from China.
"This story is a classic one of international trade shutting down an industry and international trade starting it up again," he says.