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Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner: Permitting process for taconite mines ‘on pause’

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said he has set the permit work aside to concentrate staff efforts on developing a standard for sulfate in wild rice waters. 

The MPCA’s Stine said the agency will issue a permit for the Northshore mine in Silver Bay this fall, but it will not include a limit for sulfate.

As the federal Environmental Protection Agency continues to investigate whether it should take away Minnesota’s authority to regulate taconite mines, the state’s Pollution Control Agency has put most of the agency’s work on mining permits “on pause.”

Last week, MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said he has set the agency’s permit work aside in order to concentrate the staff’s efforts on developing a standard for sulfate in wild rice waters. Wastewater from taconite mines is typically high in sulfate, which can damage wild rice beds.

If the agency were to issue any mining permits right now, Stine said, “there would be arguments about each of them, all with staff and resources dedicated to answering all those questions.”

“It would likely take longer to resolve all those questions than it will take us to get to the [sulfate] standard,” he said.  

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Stine said MPCA staffers will continue to gather information about mines with expired permits, so that when the state eventually has a sulfate standard, we’re ready to move on it.”

Environmental groups expressed dismay over the MPCA’s decision. “To say we’re either going to write a rule or we’re going to issue permits doesn’t acknowledge that agency exists to do both,” said Hudson Kingston, a staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “This sulfate rule is important, but it isn’t more important than everything else the agency has already committed to do — including enforcing existing water quality standards that aren’t incorporated into these expired permits.”

As an example, Kingston pointed to new rules from the 1990s about pollutants such as arsenic and mercury. “Minnesota wrote very good rules but if you don’t incorporate that into permits, your rules don’t go anywhere,” he said.

A complex, technically challenging process 

Many of Minnesota’s taconite mines are currently operating on expired permits – one expired 24 years ago. In 2013, the state promised the federal Environmental Protection Agency that it would eliminate the backlog within five years. But the list of mines operating on expired permits remains largely unchanged. Industries are required to continue to meet the terms of expired permits, but those permits often do not reflect current science or updated rules.

Minnesota, like most other states, sets and enforces pollution rules under a system called “cooperative federalism.” Minnesota’s rules must be approved by the EPA, and the federal agency must be satisfied that the rules meet the requirements of federal legislation such as the Clean Water Act. Permits are supposed to be renewed every five years.

Issuing permits for mines is a complex, technically challenging process which often involves negotiation between the MPCA and the permittee. Typically, a mining company proposes methods of pollution control and the agency must determine whether they will be effective. It usually takes months, often years, for the two sides to work out an approach acceptable to both. 

As one example, the behemoth of Minnesota taconite operations, U.S. Steel’s Minntac mine in Mt. Iron, has been operating on an expired permit since 1992. Minntac’s problem is that the scrubber that cleans air pollutants from one of the facility’s stacks has been adding tens of thousands of pounds of sulfate to the wastewater storage basin every year. Water from this basin flows into two different rivers, and calculations showed that at the property boundary, the sulfate concentration exceeded not only the current wild rice standard of 10 milligrams per liter, but even the much looser standard of 250 milligrams per liter set for drinking water.

Since 2001, the state and U.S. Steel have signed at least five different agreements, each committing Minntac to investigate various approaches and technologies. Among them was a Sulfate-Reducing Packed Bed Reactor system, a water treatment system, and a plan to replace existing wet air pollution scrubbers with dry control devices, which the MPCA signed off on in June 2011

But within a few months the project ran into problems. The MPCA found several inadequacies in the company’s permit application. Since then, the company and the agency have negotiated but failed to work out disagreements over how to solve the problems.

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To be sure, Minntac has made improvements: It installed collection systems designed to capture polluted groundwater that flows into the two rivers and return it to the tailings basin; and it switched to a lower-sulfate source for process water. But the EPA has been frustrated with the lack of action on the basic problem.

There are currently about 19 taconite facilities with expired permits. (Minnesota only has six active mining operations, but separate permits are often needed for the mine, the plants, the wastewater ponds, and other functions.)

Several mines are now closed due to low iron ore prices. Northshore is expected to reopen in May; United Taconite may reopen later this year. Hibbing Taconite has continued to operate through the downturn. U.S. Steel’s Keetac has been idle for about a year, and Minntac endured a shorter shutdown in 2015.

The MPCA’s Stine said the agency will issue a permit for the Northshore mine in Silver Bay this fall, but it will not include a limit for sulfate. The mine discharges to the Beaver River, which is not listed by the state as a water body that produces wild rice. In addition, a 2015 state law prohibits the agency from requiring expenditures on sulfate control before the state “refines” the sulfate standard.

Formula approach is an open question

The current standard for sulfate in wild rice waters, ten milligrams per liter, has been on the books since 1973, but has never been enforced in the mining sector. 

In 2014, after three years of research, the MPCA prepared a draft report concluding that the standard was “needed and reasonable.” But after an apparently stormy meeting with Iron Range legislators, the agency abruptly postponed official release of the report and re-wrote it. The new version emphasized remaining questions and the potential for iron in the water to mitigate toxic effects of sulfate. 

Since then, staffers have been tweaking a formula designed to protect wild rice in individual water bodies based on the water chemistry at each site. But Stine said it’s still an open question whether the formula approach will work.

“I frankly haven’t settled in my own mind what the right approach will be,” he said. “There’s questions of predictability: companies like predictability, the public likes predictability, people who like wild rice want predictability, so that’s an important debate as we move to the rule.”  

‘A clear violation of the Clean Water Act’

The EPA’s investigation of the MPCA was prompted by a petition from Water Legacy, an environmental group. Citing the stagnant permitting program, permits that allow long-term exceedance of state pollution standards and legislative interference, the petition claimed that “mining industry influence over Minnesota officials is pervasive and undermines the ability of the state” to protect water quality. The EPA has laid out a protocol for its investigation that includes examination of documents and meetings with MPCA officials this summer and fall. 

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Water Legacy attorney Paula Maccabee said the MPCA’s decision to set aside permitting “seems both outrageous and a clear violation of the Clean Water Act.” 

As the first stage in a rule-making process for a potential new sulfate standard in wild rice waters, the MPCA plans to issue a draft technical support document later this spring. The process must be completed by January, 2018.

Stine was in Duluth to promote portions of Gov. Dayton’s bonding package.  The governor wants to invest $12.7 million this year and a like amount in 2018 to help clean up historic pollution in the St. Louis River. The state funding would trigger $47 million in federal funds.