After years of controversy, failed agreements and political wrangling, the state Pollution Control Agency on Wednesday released a proposed permit for Minntac’s massive tailings basin on the Iron Range, which has been discharging pollutants into nearby streams and lakes for years.
The draft permit, released less than a week after the state was sued for failing to properly regulate U.S. Steel’s mine near Mountain Iron, for the first time proposes deadlines for the company to meet pollution goals.
“It’s a step,” said Hudson Kingston, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), which filed the lawsuit against the PCA. “But it’s not a final step.”
Officials at the PCA said that the draft permit has been in the works for some time, and that the timing of its release was coincidental to the lawsuit.
U.S. Steel was informed of the proposed permit shortly before it was issued, state officials said, but did not participate in its development.
Company officials could not be reached for comment.
The 13-square-mile Minntac tailings basin has been operating under a permit that expired in 1992. It’s become the leading example of what MCEA and other environmental groups say is the state’s light regulatory touch on the taconite industry. At least 15 taconite operations are under expired permits that have not been updated to comply with newer standards to protect water, wildlife and wild rice. But Minntac’s is the oldest.
U.S. Steel has taken steps to collect tainted water and monitor pollutants at the site, and the MPCA has been developing a new permit for years. However, the company has failed to comply with agreements to install water treatment systems or other technologies that would reduce pollution in the basin. Corporate executives testified at the state Legislature in 2015 that complying with state environmental standards could result in job losses.
One critical issue is the basin’s extremely high rates of sulfate, a pollutant that forms when waste rock is exposed to air and water, and which is destructive to wild rice. It also contributes to a chemical process that can turn mercury into an organic form that contaminates the food chain, building up as a toxin in game fish and other wildlife.
The MCEA lawsuit, using state data, said that water from the basin violates seven pollution standards, is threatening a trout stream and destroyed wild rice that once thrived in two nearby lakes.
Kingston said that the draft permit sets schedules for reducing pollutants, but that it does not go far enough. For example, it addresses water leaching out of one side of the basin, but not the other. And while it does propose long-term limits for sulfate, the limits are still far above the state standard.
“It’s questionable that this new permit complies with the Clean Water Act,” he said.
The PCA said the public has 30 days to submit written comments on the proposed permit and can ask for a public meeting. It’s also possible that the permit could become a contested case before an administrative law judge.
Kingston said that regulatory process around the permit would not affect the lawsuit, which was filed in Ramsey County District Court.
“We are going to be seeking a final permit to be issued on a court-imposed timeline,” he said. “We are not interested in delays.”