HIBBING (AP) -- Iron Range rocks are becoming fashionable decor.
More than 16,000 tons of granite boulders excavated from a played-out EVTAC Mining Co. taconite pit and an abandoned mine dump near Hibbing have been shipped to Twin Cities landscaping firms.
The rocks are used to landscape yards, create retaining walls, restore shorelines and as decorative additions to gardens.
Selling the rocks helps meet Twin Cities landscapers' needs and provides EVTAC Mining with an added source of revenue.
In 2001, the Iron Range taconite pellet producer earned about $1.3 million from selling the rocks and other mining byproducts such as taconite concentrate and tailings.
"It's been a good extra business," said Rick Maki, EVTAC Mining vice president-commercial. "I'm amazed at the demand. It's a new application of taking an old waste dump and making a product out of it, which is really neat."
The rocks, primarily granite, come from overburden removed from the top of the 100-mile-long taconite formation that spans the Iron Range.
Rocks from 30 inches to about 55 inches in diameter are most popular. But also in demand are smaller rocks, from 30 inches in diameter to 1-inch stones.
"I go through as much as he can bring me," Kevin Becker, sales manager for Hedberg Aggregates in Farmington, Plymouth and Stillwater, said of the smallest rocks. "We've had the same kind of rock down here for years. It's the brownish-purple color in this rock that people like."
Gertens, an Inver Grove Heights garden, nursery and landscaping firm, sold 110 railroad cars of Iron Range rock to landscaping contractors and private homeowners last year. And they'd like to sell more, maybe 500 railroad cars of it a year.
"I think there is the footing for a potential new industry with stone and aggregate up there," said Gino Pitera, co-owner of Gertens.
"We're not digging up fresh ground just to get boulders," Pitera said. "As long as the need for landscaping stone is going to be there, I think the Iron Range can play a role in satisfying that."
Maki is just one of Gertens' suppliers. LTV Steel Mining Co. had been another.
Plenty of unusual-colored rock still remains at LTV, Pitera said. If the taconite facility someday reopens, his business would be interested in obtaining that rock again.
At EVTAC, rock sales began two years ago as mining officials searched for innovative ways to supplement the sale of taconite pellets.
About 14,000 tons of rock in the past two years was shipped from EVTAC's South Pit until the supply of useful rocks in that pit was nearly exhausted.
The pit, which still contains taconite far below the surface, has been inactive for about 10 years because it costs too much to mine it. Slate rock there also holds potential for patio surfaces.
However, demand for the granite rocks, especially the large boulders, remains strongest.
"He can't bring me those fast enough," Becker said.
To meet future needs, Maki has formed a new independent company called Range Rocks & Minerals. He plans to continue shipping rock after he retires in March from EVTAC Mining.
Range Rocks & Minerals is excavating rock from a surface overburden dump just east of Hibbing.
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