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

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.

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.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Weyandt on 06/18/2015 - 10:58 am.

    Is the DNR just overwhelmed?

    I wonder if part if this decision is due to the possibility that the DNR section dealing with this is overwhelmed with all the other things they are dealing with. Between the mining and pipeline issues the staff has to be spread pretty thin. Add to that the limits being placed on how long applications can be processed before automatic approval and things have to be getting tough.

    Staff cuts surely also come into play. Between the DNR, MPCA and BOWSR there have either been direct cuts or no increase in staff or compensation for quite a while.

    It would be unfortunate if those who are in charge of dealing with these matters are forced to chose the lesser of evils.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/18/2015 - 06:05 pm.

      Good point

      While fishing around yesterday, trying to keep track of the changes to statute the Revisor is starting to make (and the pre-amendment language) related to the “Ag and Environment” bill, I stumbled on these items:

      “Subd. 6. Transfers

      “By June 30, 2016, the commissioner of management and budget shall transfer $58,215,000 from the closed landfill investment fund to the general fund.

      “The commissioner of the Pollution Control Agency shall transfer $8,100,000 in fiscal year 2016 from the metropolitan landfill contingency action trust account in Minnesota Statutes, section 473.845, to the commissioner of management and budget for cancellation to the general fund.

      “Remediation Fund

      “The commissioner shall transfer up to $42,000,000 from the environmental fund to the remediation fund for the purposes of the remediation fund under Minnesota Statutes, section 116.155, subdivision 2.”

      https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/?id=4&doctype=Chapter&year=2015&type=1#laws.4.114.0

      Those things aren’t directly related to your comment (I don’t think), and I believe they were straightened out to some degree by “future surplus repayment guarantees” in the special session, but they’re indicative of the type of many such “transfers” embedded in lots of House legislation this year.

      But it WOULD be interesting to know if the agencies you mentioned are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, underfunded and underpaid, etc., and like they’re being bombarded by everything happening lately, in addition to their “regular chores” related to “10,000 lakes,” millions of acres of forests, not to mention their schizophrenic “mandate” to “maximize the economics” of the natural resources they need to protect.

      The looming copper-nickel mining “full court press” is exceptionally bizarre for them, I’m sure. To me, and a lot of other people, it’s completely absurd that the DNR (or anyone else) is even considering it at this point because no one has any idea of how to handle the toxic aspects in the “Water World” of the Northeast. But there they are, stuck in the middle, getting pushed by the Massive Mining Machine on the one side, and 90% of the Minnesotan’s paying attention on the other.

      And it hasn’t really even gotten contentious yet!

      The more it comes up, the more often I find myself thinking it would be a good time for a Constitutional Amendment proposal that would put a copper-nickel mining ban (or 50 year moratorium) on the upcoming, or 2018, ballot to let all MN voters decide, and just get it over with.

      I suppose that would be “impossible,” for one reason or another, but, to me, it’s getting to be the kind of thing that definitely deserves one… If the voters could be asked to raise taxes on themselves to improve the condition of the state’s waters (primarily), it would seem reasonable to let them chime in on whether or not they’d like to Constitutionally protect them from being ravaged by toxins no one knows how to keep out of them, or remove, should there be any leaks.

      Anyway… Good point. I suspect you’re right.

  2. Submitted by Alan Muller on 06/18/2015 - 11:25 am.

    Good that this bad decision is being appealed

    DNR’s decision is obviously indefensible. I appreciate the appeals and hope they prevail.

  3. Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/18/2015 - 04:35 pm.

    State-of-the art Flintstone’s technology

    “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.”

    Somehow, I’m not reassured, and have a few questions:

    What’s that liner made of?

    Is it guaranteed to last at least 500 years?

    What might happen to it after 10 or 20 million tons of “tailings” are piled on top of it (any of those little rips, do you suppose)?

    And, once it’s under all that at the bottom of “the pit,” how is it checked/inspected to make sure no leaks have developed?

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 06/24/2015 - 09:07 am.

      “What’s that liner made of?” Does it matter to you as long as the permitting agency approves it and it and it is acceptable based on science? Could be synthetic or possibly earthen but who knows as long as it meets the standards set. All it needs to do is minimize infiltration not totally stop it.

      “Is it guaranteed to last at least 500 years?” Why 500? I would think that once it makes it past the initial few years without being damaged there should be no reason for it to not last the rest anyway.

      “What might happen to it after 10 or 20 million tons of “tailings” are piled on top of it (any of those little rips, do you suppose)?” Rips in what? Just a guess but I doubt they are going to lay a tarp down for the liner.

      “And, once it’s under all that at the bottom of “the pit,” how is it checked/inspected to make sure no leaks have developed?” Ground water/well monitoring? Just a guess though.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 06/19/2015 - 07:21 am.

    When you go to any public meeting on mining, far too few of them, you are amazed at the amount of agencies representing the State and Federal interests. You have the DNR, MN EPA, Fed EPA, MPCA and 5 or 6 other private or public groups. They outnumber the regular folks 2 to 1. I laughed when folks got upset with the citizen board losing out on their voice, don’t worry anti-mining/logging crowd you are well represented.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/19/2015 - 10:27 am.

    The root problem here is the DNR’s impossible conflict in its…

    …Jekyl and Hyde mission, its very purposes.

    On the one hand, they are supposed to protect the environment. On the other, they are supposed to promote the extraction of MN’s natural resources, as Mr. Willy notes above: a “schizophrenic” mandate.

    So long as this conflict persists, the value system – even the meaning of our ordinary language – do not apply as we assume they should.

    For example, a commenter above speculates that maybe the agency is “overwhelmed”, implying that if resources applied to its task were not diminished, their decisions would better comport with the values of most Minnesotans.

    I don’t think this would be the case, because the DNR would STILL be in a conflict – and if that conflict is the source of the problem, increasing resources won’t change the outcome.

    I appreciate the thinking of everyone else here, but there seems no other reason sufficient to explain the decisions of the DNR in all matters regarding mining and our environment: it is conflicting roles that overwhelm the DNR.

    So the words used in the comments above take on a different meaning for those in the DNR who are on the frontlines of the industry/environment conflict – they have a foot each on both sides of the line, they are virtually compelled to see the language in a light most favorable to the extraction industries.

    So to cries of “indefensible”, they can easily justify their decisions, because they have an intimate knowledge of all the arguments of industry – an entity they see as friendly to their purpose, and which supplies them with all the arguments needed.

    So the impact of arguments of environmental concern are immediately halved within the DNR, especially since the mining interests are always whispering in one ear.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/20/2015 - 11:57 am.

      Yes indeed

      Every time this and other similar topics come up, it reminds me of Ray Schoch’s comment, near the end of session, regarding increasing legislator’s pay and expanding session to approximately the same length and schedule as that of teachers.

      What that has to do with what you’re saying about the built-in conflict of interest in the DNR’s dual mission is the idea of “restructuring” a few things in the way our state’s legislative process and governing works. There should be no such thing as an “Ag and Environment” omnibus bill or conference committee allowed, for example.

      But that’s another discussion… To your point about the DNR as it relates to copper-nickel mining in particular, you’re probably 100% right, and those two areas they deal with ought to be split up into separate agencies.

      But, unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, and if they’re handing out free passes to dig up and “store” super-toxic tailings on big tarps in pits and calling that “good enough,” SOMEbody (attorneys intimately familiar with MN “hazardous waste handling” statutes and rules, maybe?) needs to start looking over their “resource development” shoulder with a high powered telescope.

      I don’t know… I may just be another unwitting conspiracy theorists who, like all good CTs, is overreacting, but it seems to me if there’s one thing in this state that needs to be stopped (as opposed to discussed, argued, etc.), it’s copper-nickel mining.

      A person would HOPE the Department of Natural resources would see the wisdom of that – in terms of other Natural Resources and gigantic negative economic impact on them – but the way things seem to be going, and as you point out (constant whispers in their ear, combined with political and “jobs pressure” – including their OWN jobs maybe on the line in the don’t “produce”), there probably is at least a 50/50 chance of the DNR’s permitting decision not ending well for those who think copper-nickel mining is a worse than bad idea.

      (It’s all getting to seem like one of those recent huge Supreme Court Decision things, isn’t it? Way too much “power” in the hands of way too few people.)

      I suspect that’s why I keep thinking about things like a MN Constitutional Amendment ballot question, or hoping the efforts to get the Federal gov to step in with a broader “regional watershed environmental impact study” (because of the potential impact on the federal BWCA, Superior National Forest, and Voyageurs?), or Obama just issuing some kind of late-term “pardon.”

      Something to just stop the whole ball of copper-nickel wax. As a state, we don’t need it. There’s no worldwide life-threatening copper or nickel crisis going on, people can get all of it they need elsewhere, and it wouldn’t hurt anything to let it just sit there in those ancient rocks for another 100 or 10 million years. At least until the time technology actually catches up with “man’s insatiable greed” and makes it possible to extract those things without turning the rest of the place into another one of those immense piles of (toxic) filth the Pope was talking about.

      Speaking of the Pope, maybe we could invite him to visit the Iron Range and give a little talk… Becky Rom (and, of course, the legislative Range Delegation) could introduce him to the crowd gathered on the edge of the iron mining pits in Hibbing, and, as he talked, the Goodyear Blimp people could maybe intersperse a few panoramic views.

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