The struggles in the steel industry hit Magnetation hard.
The company, which operated iron ore processing plants on Minnesota's Iron Range, was forced to shut down each location one by one over the past two years, as the demand plummeted.
First it was the Keewatin plant, then Bovey and the Chisholm plant they part-owned. This fall the last domino fell, when the Grand Rapids location shutdown was announced.
The idled plants (as the industry refers to them) meant hundreds of lost jobs for the region.
But a mining environmentalist millionaire thinks he can reverse its fortunes.
"Tom Clarke" gets you some interesting Google results.
He made a bunch of money in the nursing home and health care industry. Then in 2014 he established the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, to save the state's Natural Bridge.
And recently he's turned his attention to the coal industry – a struggling space with failing business across the country.
He's gone around buying up idled mining operations, selling the coal for a little more than normal – but then using that money to plant enough trees to help offset the carbon emissions, he explained to the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 2015. That's when his company, ERP Compliant Fuels LLC, bought the near-death Patriot Coal for $400 million.
“My No. 1 priority is not to stop burning coal because that’s not going to happen for 30 to 50 years,” Clarke told the paper. “We really see this as an opportunity — not to expand coal, it’s going to shrink anyway — but let’s make sure we can at least keep people employed in Central Appalachia with this offset.”
So what about Minnesota?
Since then, Clarke has made even more deals as part of his grand plan to rework the mining industry – one profiled in October by the New York Times, which described him as "the character who goes completely off script" in a movie about America's coal industry.
Next on his list of targets is apparently Magnetation's iron ore plants in Minnesota.
This week, Magnetation announced it planned to sell all of its assets to Clarke's ERP Compliant Fuels LLC, as part of bankruptcy.
The plants themselves take the waste from iron mines, and turn it into iron concentrate – sort of a recycling of what would otherwise be garbage. And that excites Clarke.
He told the Duluth News Tribune: “What a fantastic environmental-sustainability story, to be able to make this high-grade product out of what had been a waste stream."
The sale to Clarke isn't final – it still has to be approved by bankruptcy court.
Magnetation's CEO Larry Lehtinen said they were "especially pleased" to have done the deal with ERP, an "innovative company ... with whom we share a vision for advancing our unique and environmentally responsible technology." Lehtinen also said it's the best chance at getting those plants up and running again – and with them, jobs back.
Clarke's goal, though he doesn't want to create "false hope," is to get employment back up to where it was before Magnetation's bankruptcy, he told the News Tribune.