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Minnesota’s permit for Northshore mine expansion riles tribes, environmental groups

Cliffs Natural Resources
Northshore Mining Company wants to enlarge its 12-mile-long taconite pit near Babbitt into an area that contains sulfur-bearing rock. The permitting process has started, and tribal and environmental groups are crying foul.

Tribal and environmental groups say the state’s plan to allow expansion of a taconite mine raises the same concerns as the prospect of copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota. 

Northshore Mining Company wants to enlarge its 12-mile-long taconite pit near Babbitt into an area that contains sulfur-bearing rock, the same type of rock that would yield copper, nickel and precious metals for the proposed PolyMet mine just a few miles to the south. 

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided in April that a detailed environmental study of the project was not needed. After reviewing more than 1,000 public comments, the DNR ruled that environmental effects would be addressed in permits [PDF] issued by the DNR, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

That permitting process has started, and tribal and environmental groups are crying foul. The mine operates with two main permits, a Permit to Mine from the DNR, and a water permit from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The MPCA does not plan to update the water permit. The agency said that permit, which was issued in 2009 and expired last year, “adequately addresses” the risks involved in uncovering sulfur-bearing rock.

No specific limits set out

But in comments submitted to the MPCA, environmental officials at the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands pointed out that the permit does not set specific limits for sulfate, mercury, copper, nickel, zinc, or cobalt in water leaving the mine site — metals that often leach from sulfur-bearing rock when it is exposed to water. Instead, the permit requires the company to monitor the water it discharges into the environment.

“Without permit limits, there are no consequences for the discharger and violations of Minnesota water quality standards can continue as long as they are merely reported,” said Margaret Watkins of Grand Portage and Nancy Schuldt of Fond du Lac. 

They also said sulfate levels in the mine’s existing effluent already exceed state standards, and that inadequacies in the permit’s monitoring requirements violate the federal Clean Water Act. 

Water Legacy, an environmental group, made similar complaints in its comments to the agency.  Attorney Paula Maccabee said in an interview, “MPCA has identified the problem, but it hasn’t set any regulatory standards at all.”  

Maccabee worries that the Northshore mine could end up producing the same kind of pollution that’s being discharged from the nearby Dunka site, where several decades ago LTV exposed sulfur-bearing rock and did not isolate it properly from the environment. Elevated levels of copper, nickel, cobalt and zinc have been draining from the site for years.

EPA says new permit is needed

A new water permit for the Northshore mine was near the top of a priority list laid out by the state and federal governments back in 2012. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing the state to address a backlog of expired mining permits, but the MPCA has been unable to hire enough new staff to do the work.

The MPCA is taking a new tack and requiring Northshore to monitor nearby wetlands and compare them to more distant wetlands that are not affected by the mine. The agency has only imposed this requirement on one other mine, Hibbing Taconite, less than a year ago. Both mines will be required to submit annual reports on their monitoring results. 

A new hydrologist was hired to design the monitoring requirements, according to Catherine Neuschler, supervisor of MPCA’s Agency Rules Unit.   

“So it’s a really good start in terms of having a good sense of what do we want to monitor and what do we want to study, to get that kind of information moving forward,” Neuschler said. 

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is working on an amendment for Northshore’s Permit to Mine, which will include a plan to manage the sulfur-laden waste rock; the company is expected to minimize contact with water by piling it on crushed rock and covering it with a liner topped with soil. The completed pile is expected to cover 153 acres. 

Three other environmental groups – Save Our Sky Blue Waters, Save Lake Superior Association, and Wetlands Action Group — are challenging the DNR’s April decision not to do a full environmental review. The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the agency’s ruling; the groups have appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In July, Water Legacy petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw Minnesota’s power to grant water permits for mining projects, citing the backlog of expired permits and the variances routinely granted to taconite mines. The EPA is considering whether to conduct an investigation.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 11/30/2015 - 10:11 am.

    If the DNR and MPCA have given Northshore mining the ok to mine, why wouldn’t they? When the same 2 agencies deny requests to mine, log, re-route water, adjust shorelines and a hundred other regulations they are praised for looking out for Minnesotans. I am sure they will be bashed as sellouts, bought off and just plain ignorant for this ruling by the same folks.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/30/2015 - 01:39 pm.

      Nope. The DNR is conflicted by its dual missions…

      …of protecting our natural resources on the one hand, while promoting their exploitation on the other.

      This conflict seems impossible to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. You might say these two missions are inherently incompatible, which is not the fault of the DNR.

      Reasonable people can disagree as to any particular case, but some of us feel that the priority of the first mission noted above should in general stand tall over the second.

  2. Submitted by Bill Willy on 11/30/2015 - 04:25 pm.

    Violation of the People’s Will

    Seven years ago Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment to “preserve and enhance some of the most important elements of our state.”

    The most important element voters said they wanted preserved and enhanced was Minnesota’s water.

    The over-60% majority of Minnesotans that voted for that Constitutional Amendment not only voted for it “in spirit,” but voted for it in classic, “Put your money where your mouth is,” form by agreeing to pay increased sales tax to provide the funding to make that possible.

    The people — the public servants — responsible for carrying out that clear directive have not been doing that. The DNR, the MPCA, the Minnesota State Legislature has, in fact, been working against that “constitutionally expressed will of the people.”

    Existing iron ore operations have been polluting Minnesota’s waters for decades while operating on expired permits for almost as long. Permits that the MPCA is SUPPOSED to (by law) review and approve every five years, but hasn’t. Instead, they have allowed the mining industry to continuously pollute the St. Louis River and the waters of Lake Superior at Duluth without any interference.,2015).pdf

    The DNR has done no better, and, more recently, appears to be in all but total collusion with the mining industry to push through the Polymet project at all costs (which would lead to a greatly expanded non-ferrous “mining district” on the eastern edge of the Arrowhead). The scientific and historical evidence that non-ferrous mining WILL cause extremely toxic and uncorrectable pollution of Minnesota’s water is overwhelming. Yet, by giving preliminary approval to Polymet’s most recent environmental impact statement, the DNR is saying they find that “acceptable.”

    When Democrats in the Minnesota legislature attempt to help carry out the will of people as expressed in the Legacy Amendment, they are undermined by members of their own party who turn to Republicans for the support they need to ensure the continuing “blank check” support of the mining (and ag) industry because, correctly or incorrectly, they see that support as imperative for the economic well-being of their part of the state.

    So what are the people of the state to do? They voted, overwhelmingly, to tax themselves to cover the costs of protecting and improving the quality of the state’s water, but NONE of the agencies responsible for carrying out that Constitutional Directive is paying any attention to it, or taking any actions to stop long-known water polluters from doing so. And worse, it appears they’re getting ready to pro-actively “sanction” and usher-in even MORE and worse sources and forms of water-destroying industrial activity in the heart of the state’s most highly valued, complex, and sprawling fresh water system.

    Minnesotans did NOT vote for a Constitutional Amendment to allow the existing iron mining industry to pollute our waters without any challenge or enforcement of the laws (state and federal) from the MPCA.

    Minnesotans did NOT vote to have the DNR and MPCA allow the mining industry to expand into a new form of mining that has an extremely high probability of polluting Minnesota’s most precious waters in a way that would devastate the lives at least 25 future generations.

    Minnesotans voted for a Constitutional Amendment to preserve and enhance all of Minnesota’s water but no one in Minnesota’s state government is obeying that (supposedly) supreme law, but appear to be doing all they can to knowingly violate it.


    And why are they being allowed to get away with it?

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