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Environmental groups appeal DNR decision not to require impact statement for Northshore mine expansion

The chief concern is about the potential for acid runoff from exposed sulfur-bearing rock.

Cliffs Natural Resources hopes to expand its Peter Mitchell Mine near Babbitt into an area that contains sulfur-bearing rock.

Three northern Minnesota environmental groups are appealing the Minnesota DNR’s decision not to require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Cliffs Natural Resources’ plan to expand its Northshore taconite mine into sulfur-bearing rock.

The groups – Save Lake Superior, Wetlands Action Group, and Save Our Sky Blue Waters – are asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review the decision, saying the DNR’s preliminary review revealed there may be significant impacts from the expansion, which should have prompted the more detailed impact statement.

Cliffs plans to open a 108-acre area on the edge of its 12-mile-long Peter Mitchell Mine pit just south of Babbitt. Workers would move nearly 10 million tons of material each year for up to 10 years, stockpiling waste rock in the pit. Rock containing sulfur would be placed on a bed of crushed non-sulfurous rock and covered with a liner to minimize water infiltration.

The DNR decided in April not to require further study; the decision was officially posted last week. According to the appeal, the DNR received more than 1,000 comments on the project. The chief concern is about the potential for acid runoff from exposed sulfur-bearing rock.

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Documents filed on Wednesday for the appeal argue that the decision not to require a more thorough environmental study was arbitrary and capricious. The preliminary review didn’t include “adequate information on the runoff and pollution, or about how long it would be generated, or how you’re going to contain and treat it,” said the attorney representing the three groups, James Peters. “There’s no financial assurance: is the state going to have to take this over at some point? How long is Northshore mining going to exist? How do we know the taxpayers in Minnesota aren’t going to end up stuck with the tab for the runoff?”

The questions mirror concerns citizens have raised about NorthMet, a copper-nickel mine proposed by PolyMet Mining near the Peter Mitchell taconite mine.

Lori Andresen, with the group Save Our Sky Blue Waters, also pointed to continuing sulfate and heavy metal discharges from the Dunka Pit, where rock from the now-closed LTV mine is stored, suggesting the Northshore expansion could repeat the problem. “Northshore is proposing to dig into the same sulfide bearing rock – yet, no mine in close proximity to surface or groundwater has been completely successful at protecting water from acid mine drainage or heavy metal leaching,” Andresen said.

When it announced the decision, the DNR said environmental effects would be addressed through the permitting process.

Peters said the court will probably take nearly a year to decide the case.

Cliffs did not respond to a request for comment in time for this story, but the company said in an e-mailed statement in October 2014 that it has been working on the project with state agencies for more than 10 years. “If Northshore does not mine this area, it would reduce the life of the mine, thereby limiting the positive long-term employment and economic benefits.”

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
The current mine limits are outlined in green. The proposed expansion area is outlined in red. The yellow outline represents the proposed location for storing sulfurous rock.