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MINE

Lander contemplates the revival of an old iron mine

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Iron Mine

The Wyoming Business Council hopes to attract a producer to re-open the former U.S. Steel iron mine near Atlantic City, which closed in 1983.

LANDER - Cale Case, the longtime state senator here, remembers the days after U.S. Steel announced it was closing the iron mine in nearby Atlantic City.  An unbroken stream of 'for sale' signs lined Cascade Street, in the neighborhood where he still lives.

Today Cascade Street is thriving - neat ranchettes with manicured lawns dot the tree-lined avenue - and the iron mine is largely a memory. In a town where U.S. Steel was once king, the National Outdoor Leadership School is now one of the largest employers. 

The Wyoming Business Council hopes it can breathe new life into the old mine. The quasi-state run entity announced last week it is embarking on a study aimed at reviving production at the former mine, which closed in 1983. 

The prospect of renewed iron production raises the question of whether Lander would support such a venture in the 21st century.

"The town’s different," Case said. He recalled how U.S. Steel employees coached his childhood baseball team and the company paid for the uniforms. 

"We play soccer now," he said. "The coaches work for NOLS and the Nature Conservancy." 

Ore slump

Talk of reviving the old mine comes at a time when iron ore prices are in a pronounced slump. The $75 per ton reported in early November was the lowest price since September 2009, according to Bloomberg.

An oversupplied market and slowing economic growth in China is responsible for the collapse in prices, said Murray Hitzman, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines specializing in mineral extraction.   

"How that would affect the economics of restarting the mine at Atlantic City, you can probably guess as good as I could," Hitzman said. "But I would think it would be a tough time now to put a new iron mine in the middle of the United States since most of the markets are not in the U.S."

Business council officials acknowledged the current decline in iron ore prices but said they are focused on the long term. The site's 150 million- to 200 million-ton reserve could support 40 to 50 years of mining, they said. 

The former mine produced taconite pellets, which were shipped via rail to the Salt Lake City area, where they were feed into a blast furnace to make steel, said Ben Avery, business and industry division director at the Wyoming Business Council.

The hope is a new mine could produce high-quality pig iron, or new iron. Pig iron can be used to reinforce recycled steel, which accounts for much of the market today, or in products that require new steel. A car axle factory in Nebraska could be one customer looking for new steel, Avery said.   

"The worldwide demand for steel is increasing exponentially," Avery said. "It makes sense for the state of Wyoming to do things proactively to have options available here. If we don’t, we’re not doing our jobs to promote large projects and to make things happen."

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Cost study

For now, the business council's plans call for studying the cost of building a new mill. The state would then complete a comparative tax study showing Wyoming as a favorable place to mine. The hope is to entice a company to build a new mill at the old mine, Avery said. 

He characterized companies' interest in the former site as "very, very promising," though he acknowledged the recent drop in prices has dampened interest. Investment in a new mill will likely exceed $1 billion, he said.

The old mine site is owned by the agribusiness Simplot, which leased the land to U.S. Steel. Ken Day, a company spokesman, said Simplot is supportive of the business council's efforts.

"We don’t have any offers at this point, but we will entertain any serious offers and go from there," he said. 

In Lander, many are taking a wait-and-see approach. Plans to redevelop the old mine have come and gone on several occasions since it closed its doors in the early 1980s, said Bill Sniffin, a longtime Wyoming columnist and former owner of the Lander Journal. 

Transportation would be among the biggest challenges for a new mine, he said. The old rail line serving the former mine was taken out soon after the U.S. Steel closed its doors. 

Lander today is as far removed from a mining town as possible, Sniffin said. Still the community would likely support the project given the environmental regulations governing mining now, he said.  

"Those of us who do have the long view, we’re excited about this. This is great news," Sniffin said. "But we have a wait-and-see attitude."

Jobs and trucks

Stephanie Kessler, a Fremont County commissioner who lost a reelection bid earlier this month, said area residents are likely to be supportive of jobs associated with a new mine.

The prospect of large trucks trundling up and down state Highway 28, which many Lander people drive to reach skiing and rock climbing locations, would likely be a concern, she said.   

Kessler moved to Lander about the time the mine closed. She watched the town's tight rental market suddenly flood with available properties. And over the next several decades, she observed the expansion of the area's educational institutions: NOLS, Wyoming Catholic College and Central Wyoming College, which operates an outreach center and an Outdoor Recreation Center in town. 

"Lander has kind of moved on as far as its identity," Kessler said. "I think people like the status quo to some degree."

Case, the state senator, said mining today would differ from the past. Technological advancements likely mean the mine would employ fewer people. Such advancements also mean mining could be done in an environmentally friendly manner. A smaller mine footprint would be unlikely to upset Lander's current balance, he said.

But, he added, the economic and transportation challenges make the mine a long shot anyway. 

Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow

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