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

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.  

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.

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. 

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.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/04/2016 - 01:39 pm.

    Who IS the DNR, MPCA and IRRRB working for?

    As always, great job summing up the issue, Stephanie. Permitting “on pause” (in quotes) indeed. Right where its been for decades.

    And Hats Off! to Paula Maccabee and While I know there are countless great people working their tails off to stop the local insanity known as the “Polymet/Twin Metals Sulfide In Our Coffee” project, the particular episode covered in this article — and even though it pertains to existing iron ore mining and not copper specifically — has been, to me, one of the more eye-opening and potentially effective (legal) efforts in the whole mess so far (that I’m aware of, anyway).

    If the EPA doesn’t like what the MPCA has done in regards to “controlling” iron ore pollution, they’re not going to be wild about the prospect of them keeping copper toxins out of our water which could very well make it much less likely the EPA would sign off on a copper mining permit, regardless of what the DNR does or the MPCA says.

    For anyone interested in the background, these two things will provide it:

    “Citing MPCA weakness, group asks feds to step in on mining’s water pollution”

    That’s a link to Ron Meador’s July 15 article about the petition Ms. Maccabee and WaterLegacy filed with the EPA and the following is link/address to the petition itself:

    “WaterLegacy Petition for Withdrawal of Program Delegation from the State of Minnesota for NPDES Permits Related to Mining Facilities – July 2, 2015”,2015).pdf

    Not many people have the inclination or (organic) ability to sit still long enough to read documents like that (and who can fault them?), but for anyone interested in gaining insight and getting a real feel for just how (legislatively) ugly, corrupt, organized, and stupid the things this article points to actually are, here are the headlines in that petition’s table of contents. If you see anything that catches your attention and makes you curious, the details are at the link above. Some of them are way more than interesting (take a look at what happened just before the MPCA was ready to roll out its 2014 wild rice water standards, for example — page 21) and ALL of it shows what a great piece of work Paula Maccabee did. Good enough to convince the EPA to take her up on the invitation to do an investigation which is no small accomplishment:




    A. The MPCA has Failed to Issue Timely NPDES Permits for Minnesota Mining Facilities Despite a Joint Priority Agreement with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Eliminate the MPCA’s Mining Permit Backlog . . . 4

    B. The MPCA Consistently Fails to Conduct a Reasonable Potential Analysis to Determine whether Mining Pollutants Have the Potential to Cause or Contribute to a Violation of Minnesota’s Narrative Water Quality Standards . . . 7

    C. The MPCA Uses Variances and Compliance Schedules to Issue Mining Facility Permits that Do Not Comply with the Clean Water Act. . . 13

    D. The MPCA has Failed to Act on Violations of Permits and Clean Water Act Violations by Mining Facilities . . . 17

    E. The MPCA has Said it Will Not Regulate Tailings Seepage under the Clean Water Act even where there is a Hydrologic Connection to Surface Waters . . . 20


    The Legislature Recently Prohibited MPCA from Enforcing Minnesota’s Wild Rice Sulfate Standard or Listing Wild Rice Impaired Waters . . . 21


    CONCLUSION . . . 27

    From the looks of things the petition clearly shows (and documents) we’d be lucky if the EPA not only does a thorough investigation, but decides to take the next step of revoking the MPCA’s authority to act on the EPA’s behalf in upholding the laws as defined under the Clean Water Act until the MPCA, the legislature and “other officials” get their act together enough to actually do their job of working on behalf of Minnesotan’s environmental well-being instead of what appears to be working on behalf of the mining industry’s environmental well-being.

  2. Submitted by Alan Muller on 05/09/2016 - 12:00 pm.

    Change is much needed….

    Site specific sulfate standards are not likely to work because any applicants able to buy enough consultants, and/or having enough political clout, will likely prevail.

    US Steel has a bad environmental record wherever it has operated.

    Totally agree with Water Legacy that the State of Minnesota has shown itself incapable of effectively regulating mining facilities in Minnesota. EPA should withdraw the delegated permitting authorities. And what sense would it make to allow non-ferrous mining operations to start up when the state can’t properly regulate existing facilities?

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