EPA rejects Mesabi Nugget water quality variance

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is explaining its reversal of a decision that would have given a Minnesota iron pellet facility more time to comply with water quality laws.

In a letter to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency this week, the EPA said state officials did not adequately justify the time period for Mesabi Nugget's variance.

Mesabi Nugget, which operates the plant near Hoyt Lakes, had requested and received permission in 2012 to exceed four different water quality measures — hardness, bicarbonates, conductivity and total dissolved solids — until 2021. But environmental and tribal groups sued the EPA over the variance.

MPCA officials said the EPA's reversal is the first time the federal agency has ever granted a variance and then changed its mind. Because of the EPA's decision, the company would have to file for a new variance.

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"We're disappointed, because we worked on it very closely with the EPA, and initially they approved it," said Katrina Kessler, who leads the MPCA's water assessment section.

Kessler said MPCA officials still believe the timing of the variance is likely reasonable, but she said the agency's initial interpretation of the EPA's letter is that more details are needed to justify the 2021 date. She said MPCA officials are still studying the decision and what it means.

But an attorney for one of the groups that sued said she's hopeful the EPA's decision will lead the MPCA to require Mesabi Nugget to comply with water quality laws sooner.

"They're very straightforward. They said we made an error and this is how, and I think it's really commendable," Paula Maccabee, the attorney for WaterLegacy, said of EPA officials. "I'm hopeful what this will mean is that Minnesota will move in the right direction."

Water Legacy and other environmental groups have been pressuring the MPCA to require that mining-related operations comply with all water quality laws.

A Mesabi Nugget spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kessler said the EPA's decision has no immediate impact on Mesabi Nugget's permit to operate. Under that permit, the plant is not allowed to discharge treated wastewater from April through August and must pass certain water toxicity tests to be able to do so in September.