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Iron Range takes tools into 21st Century

One of Minnesota's oldest industries says it's time to get with the times and invest in more electric shovels.

MOUNTAIN IRON, Minn. — The sheer size of a mine up in the Iron Range is enough to leave you in awe. Behemoths of machinery roam the grounds, carrying tons of taconite to be processed into iron ore pellets.

"Whether it's your cell phone, your tablet, a solar panel a windmill, it started as a rock somewhere," Mike Bakk said. 

Bakk is a 21-year-veteran of U.S. Steel, which owns the Minntac mine. He is currently the reliability director at the company.

"This is not the old pick, shovel and wheelbarrow as some people might think – this is a highly technical piece of equipment," he added.

More specifically, the shovel that does the work of scraping, scooping and loading, long ago joined the fight in making mining more sustainable...by being plugged in.

"Minntac has always had electric shovels for decades and decades, we know they're very reliable, they're very productive, and they're cheaper to operate than a diesel powered piece of equipment," Bakk said.

Knowing that, Minntac recently finished a $100 million rebuild project that upgraded six aging shovels and purchased two brand new ones. This allowed the company to retire four diesel powered ones, and the swap has a significant environmental impact.

"Some of the larger diesel powered shovels could burn an excess of 2,000 gallons a day, maybe even more on some of the really large ones," Bakk said.

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That saves three million gallons of fuel per year, conservatively.

"For something like this that's just plugged in, it's taking electricity off the grid," Bakk explained.

"There's gigantic cables that have to get moved around, that's why operationally, it's more difficult than a diesel shovel which-- can just move, you have to have people physically moving the cable which moves very slowly," Chrissy Bartovich said. Bartovich is U.S. Steel's environmental director. She said despite the maneuvering issues, the company clearly thought the investment was one worth making. "It's just the way to go. It supports our goals, it supports our operation equipment, there's a lot of things that go along with that that makes it a more reliable and sustainable facility."

So why try to be sustainable at all?

"The world in general you have to be more environmentally responsible, that's just the name of the game now," Bartovich said. "And frankly, I live across the highway from this place, so i wanna make sure that we're good environmental stewards. I'm raising three kids in this area, and I want this place to be around for a long time."

"We all live here, we play here, our kids grow up here, and we wanna take care of this area as much as anybody else," Bakk added.

U.S. Steel says it will probably keep a couple of diesel shovels around just for mobility's sake. They say since those don't have to be plugged in at all, they can come in handy in some situations.

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