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Dayton says he's confident about northern Minnesota mining projects

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton laughs while talking with Tom Clarke of ERP Iron Ore before the start of a Wednesday night dinner meeting in Mountain Iron, Minn. Mesabi Daily News photo

MOUNTAIN IRON, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said he's confident Chippewa Capital Partners will meet the settlement agreement with the state and launch the former Essar Steel Minnesota project.

Dayton expressed his optimism to Iron Range mayors Wednesday afternoon and again while addressing the annual meeting of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools later in the day.

"We're going to do everything we possibly can to see that plant rebuilt and brought into production," Dayton said.

Billionaire Tom Clarke, who is leading the Chippewa effort, was also in attendance at the RAMS meeting, just weeks after emerging from bankruptcy with the Nashwauk project.

Clarke, who also pulled Magnetation out of bankruptcy through ERP Iron Ore, said the west Iron Range plant could open as early as this summer. He expects a 2020 production timeline for Chippewa.

"We're very, very excited to be a part of the community and jumpstart this project and bring everything to fruition," Clarke, who lives in the state of Virginia, said. "I have talked to so many people that remember when Butler Taconite closed — for us it is a deep passion to fulfill the dream people have had for the past, literally, 33 years."

Clarke and Cleveland-Cliffs have lately been tangled in a legal clash over the project with few clear answers on the real impact. Cliffs purchased and leased land within the Nashwauk project from a private owner in December that sits mostly within the former Butler Taconite mine pit.

Chippewa argued in court that the land deal was an attempt by Cliffs to sabotage the project, but the Cleveland-based company argued in documents filed this week that the ore body would preserve Hibbing Taconite's lifespan.

Dayton acknowledged the land deal complicates access to the ore, and the state has previously said it was reviewing the full impacts. The governor added he intends to contact Cliffs to find out the company's intentions.

"I've not had a chance yet to talk with Cliffs' executives to see what their intentions are," Dayton said. "I think it's very important we find a way for Chippewa and Cliffs to work together and see their roles as contributing to one another's success rather than competing — but I have to work on that."