Highway 53 in northern Minnesota bisects an active taconite mine as well as the now closed Rouchleau Group of Mines, former natural iron ore mines. Per a 1960 agreement, the State had to move the road so the nearby taconite mine could exercise its right to continue operations.
Back in 1960, the state of Minnesota made a deal with then iron ore mine owner, U.S. Steel. The deal said the State could use the mine’s land to maintain Highway 53 between two towns, Eveleth and Virginia. The deal was through a surface right-of-way agreement, which means the mine retains the surface ownership and mineral rights underneath the highway. Furthermore, if the minerals were needed before 1987, the mine would have to pay for the highway’s relocation. After 1987, the responsibility was on the State.
The mining industry employs thousands of people in northern Minnesota's major mining district known as the Mesabi Iron Range. It is one the State’s major economic drivers. These mining facilities produce the raw materials used by the steel industry to create products we use every day.
In 2010, the two companies owning the minerals -- RGGS Land and Minerals Co. and current mine owner, Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. -- exercised their contractual rights to have the roadway moved to extend its operation. By not moving the road so the mine could extend its operation, this would have negatively affected the longevity of the mine, which would have led to a negative economic impact to the region.
The State had the option to buy out the minerals underneath the old Highway 53 and avoid moving the roadway altogether. But, this option was financially prohibitive and was not selected as the preferred alternative.
The 1960s-contract stipulated a three-year notice be given in the event the mineral owners wanted to access the iron ore underneath the highway. Given the considerable scope of the project, the State was able to negotiate a seven-year schedule with the mineral owners. Even with this extension, seven years is still challenging when considering the complex nature of the project. Environmental reviews, permitting, design of a major transportation corridor and stakeholder involvement are just a few of the tasks involved; and the project had to be perfectly timed to occur within shortened construction seasons due to extreme weather.
Because of the project scope and the multitude of different entities involved, collaboration was essential. As the lead State agency, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) put together a team to evaluate roadway rerouting options. The team consisted of officials from the four nearby communities and a public trail system, a public utilities commission, along with staff from mining interests. Additionally, the team had to take into account a landfill operation that had to remain open during the project, the design and construction of the road itself and the needs of the mine and adjacent land owners. There was a lot at stake for the community and the stakeholders.
To move Highway 53, the project team needed active engagement from the many entities involved. Each of the stakeholders had their own concerns going into the project. To get a better idea of the project scope, here are some of the key project stakeholders.
MnDOT was the chief stakeholder tasked with rerouting the highway. When the State and the mine owners made the agreement to expand Highway 53 in 1960, MnDOT became the primary partner on behalf of the State. MnDOT was concerned about the costs of the overall project as well as any effects it may have on the human and natural environment. They also took into account future mining operations and the seismic activity it might create around a new roadway.
Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. and its operating company, United Taconite at the Thunderbird Mine, was a critical and engaged stakeholder working directly with MnDOT and the nearby communities. RGGS Land and Minerals Company, the entity that owns the mineral rights to the mine was also a key player. Together, they provided the mine’s boundaries and locations of mineral reserves. These resources were critical in understanding the extent of the existing and future mine operation. Planning for the new highway was based largely on this data. The mine owner also had to make sure its future operations wouldn’t affect the location in and around the new roadway.
The four communities around the mine were all founded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their existence has been shaped by the timber and iron ore mining industry in the area. The mining industry is a major employer for these communities. While each community had unique concerns with how their city would be accessed when the highway was moved, they also had vested interests to work with the State and a major regional employer.
Virginia – Virginia is directly to the north and east of the mine and is where most of the rerouted highway travels. The water, sanitary sewer and natural gas mains for a neighborhood in Virginia were routed along the old Highway 53, and had to be moved. The City’s drinking water supply also comes from the Mesabi Mountain Pit, the northernmost natural iron ore pit within the Rouchleau Group of Mines. These mines are now largely submerged under water. Any roadway option near the Rouchleau Group of Mines had to consider environmental regulations, particularly related to current and future water quality.
Eveleth – Highway 53 passes through Eveleth before entering Virginia. The City sits directly to the south of the mine and at the beginning of the section of highway that needed to be moved. Eveleth was also concerned with their accessibility to neighboring communities and the potential disruption of emergency services.
Gilbert – Gilbert is to the east of Highway 53, just before it enters into Virginia. A smaller community than Virginia and Eveleth, Gilbert stakeholders were concerned with access to the larger cities and public emergency services they provide.
Mountain Iron – This community is adjacent to Virginia, and to the west of Highway 53, after the highway passes through the mine. Some initial road plans considered rerouting the highway through Mountain Iron. Their concern was how this reroute would change their existing community.
The PUC owns the water, power and gas mains serving Virginia, which is located north and east of the mine. Those lines ran along the old section of Highway 53 and needed to be moved along with the highway. The PUC was critical in the planning process because the removal and reconnection of the utilities had to happen in conjunction with critical design timelines of the bridge, and to minimize disruption of services to the community.
The rail authority operates the Mesabi Trail, a popular, public multi-use recreational trail that traveled along the section of highway. It also needed to be moved. Because the mineral rights beneath the new trail had to be purchased, it was critical the new trail was as narrow as possible, while maintaining all of its multiple uses.
Because buying out the mineral rights under the highway was cost prohibitive, the team began exploring a more detailed look at other alignment options for the highway.
With a project of this magnitude, a number of options were considered for rerouting the roadway. Here are some of the major ones.
Options M1 and W1 were abandoned early in the process. Varying reasons included potential conflicts with mine operations, disconnecting community services and economic impacts to Gilbert, Eveleth and Virginia.
Options E1 and E2 were the preferred alignments and were studied over the course of a few months. The project team studied various geotechnical, structural and mineral ownership options. In October 2014, the project team held a workshop where they reported their findings. In the end, the groups determined Option E2 was the best option to move forward. After this decision, the design of the roadway began to take a more focused shape.
“Once the alignment was chosen we had two months to design the layout,” says Nate Blanchard, SEH highway designer.
The project team immediately began working on the roadway layout for Option E2. This included roadway alignments, profiles and geometrics. The layout was completed and approved by stakeholders and the State Geometrics Engineer within six weeks. The approved layout then served as the basis for the final plans.
According to Blanchard, because of the critical timeline, the roadway final plans were completed at the same time as the environmental review process. Typically, the environmental process is completed before final design begins. This was a calculated risk MnDOT had to take in order to stay on schedule. If the process brought up any red flags, the roadway plans would have had to be reevaluated.
“MnDOT worked diligently with local, state and federal agencies to ensure that environmental review was completed in a timely fashion,” says Allyz Kramer, SEH biologist. “They answered questions about the project quickly and professionally, so major design decisions could proceed in a nearly parallel process with the environmental review.”
According to Kramer, everyone involved exhibited a ‘workhorse’ attitude, and collaborated to vet any issues, understand potential effects and determine appropriate mitigation or alternative designs to meet the project purpose and need. And it was all completed under a tightening schedule.
“Hats off to MnDOT and the stakeholders for keeping it positive and working together, even when there were challenges,” Kramer said.
Once the team had an approved design to move the highway, they began construction.
Because the new highway would still travel across land owned by the mine, the State had to purchase the mineral rights underneath it. However, the section of mine the highway went over was substantially smaller than the previous highway. To manage costs, it was important to keep the roadway and bridge as narrow as possible, yet operationally adequate and safe. The Mesabi Mountain Pit within the Rouchleau Group of Mines, over which the new highway travels, is also the primary source of drinking water for the City of Virginia. Because of this, the project team used stormwater management techniques to divert runoff from the roadway and bridge away from the mine pit.
In the end, more than two miles of roadway was constructed on either side of a 200-foot tall bridge over the Rouchleau Group of Mines. The bridge is one of the tallest in the state of Minnesota.
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Per a 1960 agreement, a number of stakeholders worked with mining interests to reroute a major local highway, public utilities and a trail under a very aggressive timeline. Because of their collaboration, the mining operation critical to the area could continue operating on its property.
“It was the teamwork between all of the stakeholders that really made this project come together,” says Blanchard. “Without cooperation and communication between everyone involved, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
With the completion of the road relocation, the mining operation has since received the approvals they needed to extend the mine. Taconite mining continues to support the Iron Range communities and Minnesota’s economy, producing the raw material for the steel we use in everyday products.
Nate Blanchard is an SEH highway engineer specializing in unique designs for complex roadway challenges.
Allyz Kramer is an SEH biologist dedicated to environmental solutions with transparent processes that balance the needs of the human and natural environment.