Here on Minnesota’s Iron Range, debates over mining typically focus on the age-old fault line: jobs vs. the environment.

But increasingly, the dividing line has shifted, at least among Iron Range legislative leaders, who are increasingly focused on enhancing mining company profits, even at the expense of the environment, as well as jobs.


Take the case of U.S. Steel’s massive Minntac plant and its 8,000-acre tailings basin just north of Virginia, Minn. To give you some sense of scale, that basin is about twice the size of Richfield. It has been discharging millions of gallons of industrial wastewater annually into northeastern Minnesota rivers and lakes on a permit that expired in 1992.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is in the process of issuing a new permit to the company, and it has proposed enforcing the state’s strict 10-milligrams-per-liter sulfate limit on the company’s discharges that flow into the Pike River watershed, which empties into Lake Vermilion’s Pike Bay.

U.S. Steel, not surprisingly, is protesting. They say enforcing the 40-year-old regulation (enacted in 1973 to protect wild rice) would be unnecessarily costly and burdensome. They’ve appealed to Iron Range legislators, who have introduced bills that would prevent the MPCA from enforcing the standard.

This represents a somewhat stunning development, even for the Iron Range. Area legislators have long been captives of the mining sector, but in the past their allegiances typically favored mine workers, rather than corporate shareholders. But this isn’t a case of jobs vs. the environment. U.S. Steel isn’t going to shut down its Minntac plant just because the state finally gets tough on its high-sulfate discharges.

U.S. Steel is a massive integrated steel manufacturer and finisher, which netted $2.78 billion in profits between 2004 and 2014. Minntac, which currently provides two-thirds of the raw material that keeps U.S. Steel’s vast empire operating, isn’t going anywhere. Indeed, state regulators recently approved a mine expansion there that will keep the company mining taconite at the facility for many years to come. Building and operating a water-treatment facility to clean tailings basin water prior to discharge will certainly cost money, but we’re talking about a small nick to profits, nothing more.

The company isn’t going to cut its Minntac workforce because of it. If anything, requiring the company to make an additional investment in plant infrastructure would encourage future production. Iron Range legislators have argued as much for years, when they annually return a portion of the taconite production tax to mining companies for facility upgrades.

In addition, the company would have to hire workers to staff its water-treatment facility. While Iron Range legislators often hate to admit it, protecting the environment often creates jobs, and this is a good example.

I don’t fault U.S. Steel for resisting the MPCA or sending lobbyists to St. Paul to plead its case. As a publicly traded company, its management’s duty is to shareholders. If it can pad its dividends at the expense of northeastern Minnesota’s water quality, it’ll certainly do so.

It’s Iron Range legislators who seem to have lost their way, putting the interests of corporate shareholders, most of whom don’t even live in Minnesota, ahead of the interests of their own constituents. After all, it’s not just environmentalists who want clean water. Many workers who spend long hours in area mines spend their free time fishing on Lake Vermilion, which is directly affected by Minntac’s discharges. And the chemical reactions sparked by high sulfate levels in sediments lacking oxygen contribute to increased mercury levels in fish. If you don’t care about water quality for its own sake, at least consider the connection to human health.

Iron Range legislators need to regain a sense a perspective when it comes to the Mesabi Iron Range’s only industry. Currently, their response to any effort at protecting the environment from the impacts of mining is open hostility. We need leaders who are able to see the bigger picture, and who aren’t content to serve as mere handmaidens to the captains of industry.


Marshall Helmberger is publisher of Timberjay newspapers in Tower, Minn.