Two permits have been approved to allow a major expansion at U.S. Steel's taconite plant in Keewatin on the western end of the Iron Range.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency citizens board approved the permits. It's the first time the agency has imposed sulfate limits on a mine. The sulfate standard is meant to protect wild rice, and has been controversial since the state indicated it would start enforcing the decades-old limit.
Like other mines on the Iron Range, the mine in Keewatin deposits into rivers wastewater that contains far more sulfate than is allowed under a standard set in 1973. Sulfate is a naturally occurring chemical that becomes concentrated in mine wastewater. In large amounts it can kill wild rice beds.
Two years ago, under pressure from Ojibwe bands, the MPCA announced it would begin enforcing the rule.
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The permit the MPCA Citizens Board approved on Tuesday moves U.S. Steel toward meeting the standard by requiring the company to study ways to reduce wastewater sulfate, and then deliver to the MPCA a plan for reducing the pollutant. The company has up to eight years to develop a plan.
Long-time MPCA critic and environmental attorney Paula Maccabee describes the decision as a victory for the environment.
"That neither the MPCA, nor the EPA, nor U.S. Steel is disputing that this standard shall apply, shall apply to this mine, shall apply to other mines," Maccabee said.
U.S. Steel plans to spend $300 million to re-activate a long-idled production line, and boost annual taconite production from six-million tons to more than nine-million tons.
Environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had complained that the water permits didn't include a strict timetable, with enforceable benchmarks. The MPCA made some changes that satisfied some critics, but not Kevin Reuther, attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
"We have a permit that's being issued that says, 'In six months tell us what your plan is for meeting water quality standards,' " Reuther said. "That's not appropriate. MPCA's job is to ensure that this company will meet the state's water quality standards as soon as possible, and in order to do that it needs to see the plan."
Some members of the MPCA Citizens Board expressed concern that U.S. Steel wouldn't be forced to act quickly enough.
Board member Dr. Daniel Foley said he was satisfied that agency staff will hold the company to its promises. He didn't want to wait until the plan is complete before approving the permits, because the new permits address other issues not included in the company's current permits.
"There's lot of other things that are substantial improvements for the environment," Foley said. "It also allows them to assemble all the permits that are required before they move forward."
The permits indicate that U.S. Steel must be in compliance with the state limit "as soon as possible," however, only date specified is 2019, as the cut-off. The citizens board directed staff and U.S. Steel to report annually, and maintain transparency of its progress.
If Keetac engineers are able to reduce sulfate in mining wastewater, it could be a great change for the industry. U.S. Steel's other Minnesota plant, Minntac, has been operating on an expired permit for years, partly because of sulfate issues. Polymet and other companies that want to mine for copper and nickel are watching the process closely.