VIRGINIA — U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, chair of the Congressional Western Caucus, didn’t know what kind of power he really had until he had the chance to push a special button at US Steel Minntac and see what it’s like to move some dirt in a hurry.

“I got to push the button (for a mine blast), so I was jazzed about that,” the Republican congressman told the Mesabi Tribune Thursday. “We moved one million tons of material with 340,000 pounds of explosives. It was amazing. I didn’t realize I had that kind of power.”

Newhouse — at the behest of Minnesota’s Eighth District U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, along with six other members of the Congressional Western Caucus, all Republicans — spent the day on the Iron Range, receiving a close-up education about the region's iron ore industry, copper-nickel mining opportunities, forest industry, people, and communities during the visit.

The day started with an early morning forum in Grand Rapids, where the group spent time with forestry and timber resources industry leaders and stakeholders at the Timberlake Lodge Event Center and ended with an evening roundtable with invited guests from the mining industry at Iron Trail Motors Event Center in Virginia.

Inbetween, the group toured the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Drill Core Library in Hibbing and United States Steel Corp.'s Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron.

“It’s extremely important to bring members of Congress (here), in particular the ones that are on the natural resources committee, to understand the industry, understand the economic impact, and actually listen to the people and hear their stories and how important mining is to this region,” Stauber told the Mesabi Tribune before the mining roundtable. “You’re looking at not only the expansion of iron ore mining, but now the critical minerals. The opportunity that this district has… that can help with the supply chain issues we are facing.”

Newhouse said the chance to visit with local chamber representatives and business leaders in person was an excellent chance to see what mining means to the area, which will help him and the others on the tour explain the importance to their colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C.

“I’m from the state of Washington, I fly over Minnesota, but probably wouldn’t have a reason to come to northern Minnesota had Pete not invited us, so this is the kind of thing that will allow me and the other members of Congress to speak as passionately as Pete Stauber does about something that’s very important to our national security,” Newhouse said. “We don’t just have to rely on talking points given to us — we know first hand because we’ve seen what’s going on here. We’ve seen the care and the science that goes into extracting minerals responsibly and the potential that we have up here.”

Stauber said much of Thursday’s discussions during the tour were about the area’s top notch labor standards, and that the cleanest water in the state is in northern Minnesota.

For some on the tour it was the first time they had ever seen a working mine.

“They’re very excited. They’ve had a good day. We toured Minntac, the mine pits, we saw a blast, and just talked about the economic impact of the mines and what it does for the entirety of northern Minnesota,” Stauber said.

He added that the members were asking good questions and learned a lot about how mining affects the entire region.

“We talked about the mining, the tradition, and the generations in mining. We had four and five generations talking to us about the importance and value of the industry and the secondary effects for the communities around and how positive it is,” Stauber said. “They talked about how when the mining industry goes down everybody holds their breath, ‘who is going to close, what is going to happen. That doesn’t have to be that way. We are going to have a vibrant, continuous mining community and mining operations here for many, many years.”

Others on the tour Thursday included U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, who was visiting the region for the third time, Rep. Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota, Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, Rep. Jerry Carl of Alabama, Rep. Jay Obernolte of California, and David Bernhardt, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Representatives from the American Exploration and Mining Association, National Mining Association, MiningMinnesota, Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, labor, and community leaders, also participated in the visit.

Minnesota Sen. David Tomassoni (I), Chisholm, who couldn’t make Thursday’s tour, said by text “that everything comes from the ground. If it isn’t mined, logged, farmed or drilled, it probably doesn’t exist,” he said. “If we want our new age economy to be a reality, mining has to be a huge part of it. We have all the minerals necessary to make batteries, windmills, solar panels, electric cars, right here in northern Minnesota.”

He added that Iron Rangers have been mining the area for 140 years and northern Minnesota boasts the cleanest water and air in the state.

“We know how to mine and keep the environment pristine. We won two world wars with our mining. We can win the war on global warming if we are given the chance to mine nonferrous minerals,” he said.

There were about 100 people present during the invite only roundtable, which featured speakers ranging from elected officials to mining industry stakeholders.

The tour follows a mining forum Stauber hosted in Washington D.C. in January featuring a number of Minnesota stakeholders who were flown out for the discussion, including St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Jugovich, Jason George, Business Manager and Financial Secretary International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49, Brian Hanson, Chair, Jobs for Minnesotans, and Julie Padilla, Chief Regulatory Office, Twin Metals Minnesota, Mark Compton, Executive Director of the American Exploration and Mining Association and Heather Reams, President of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES).

During that forum, and during Thursday’s roundtable, much of the discussion revolved around critical minerals mining and recent developments delaying projects in the area including Twin Metals.

It’s only been a few weeks since the U.S. Department of Interior canceled two mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota on federal land at the company's proposed copper, nickel and platinum group metals mining project about nine miles southeast of Ely.

Twin Metals Minnesota in 2019 presented a mine plan to state and federal regulatory agencies.

But before the company could begin applying for permits, the leases were canceled.

The leases have been held since the mid 1960s under 11 different administrations, according to Twin Metals Minnesota.