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Feds hear Iron Range woes
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
July 6, 2001
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Nearly 1,000 people filled the high school auditorium in the Iron Range town of Virginia Thursday to talk about problems in the nation's steel industry. Mining companies and their workers have banded together, calling on President Bush to use some form of trade sanctions to limit the amount of foreign steel imported to the United States. Federal officials came to Minnesota to gather testimony in their investigation of the industry's troubles.

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MORE THAN 900 PEOPLE REQUESTED TO SPEAK AT THE HEARING, but there was only time for 34. Speakers ranged from U.S.senators and CEOs of major companies to local mayors, and a high school student. The federal officials listened for seven hours as one by one, witnesses talked about the importance of shoring up the United States steel industry.

Several months ago, Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar and Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak requested the Commerce Department investigate the nation's steel industry. They say cheap, foreign-made steel is putting U.S. companies out of business, and threatening national security. They say the security threat allows President Bush to step in and limit the amount of foreign-made steel brought into the country. At Thursday's hearing, most speakers talked about the importance of U.S.-made steel to national defense, as did U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton.

"It's hard to imagine the U.S. having genuine national security without a domestic steel industry. It's hard to imagine our country recovering from a dastardly sneak attack like Pearl Harbor, rebuilding our Navy, and winning a world war without a domestic steel industry," said Dayton.

Several speakers alluded to the United States' dependence on imported oil. State Rep. Tom Rukavina told the panel foreign suppliers are not reliable - and he says that holds true for foreign suppliers of iron ore and steel.

"We can't call up the Chinese, we can't call the Ukrainians and Russions in times of emergency, and ask them for their raw resource, or their finished steel product. We can't let this country get to that point," he said.

Rukavina grew up in Virginia. He told the panel the town is struggling. He says his legislative district has lost one-fourth of its population since the 1980s. Several speakers told the panel the Iron Range will die without mining, and executives from mining companies said the industry will die unless the government cuts off imported steel. The CEO of Cleveland Cliffs mining company, John Brinzo, told the panelists that mining and steel companies have deep financial troubles. But he says the root problem is the growing amount of cheap, foreign steel coming into the country.

"There is no one issue that is a greater threat to our business, to the steel industry in the United States," Brinzo said.

As the testimony continued throught he afternoon, hundreds of people gathered outside the high school. They listened to speeches, and pro-union folk singers. Some carried signs reading, "Stand up for iron ore." People outside echoed the ideas expressed inside - steel made in the United States is crucial to a prosperous country. Cliff Toby drove over from Keewatin where he works at National Steel. He says the Commerce Department investigation focuses on the narrow question of national security, but it has broad implications.

"We're trying to show the fact that you don't start it up overnight. It takes years to start a steel industry after it's shut down," said Toby.

Members of the Commerce Department panel hold another hearing in Michigan, and then review testimony and evidence they've gathered. Commerce Secretary Dan Evans will report the panel's findings to President Bush this fall, and the President then has 90 days to decide whether to take action to protect the domestic steel industry.