After Supreme Court victory, peat mine proposal's fate in DNR's hands

A year after a winning a key victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, a peat mine operation in northwestern Minnesota hopes it can quickly clear the remaining bureaucratic hurdles to its proposed expansion.

The Hawkes Company, based in Grand Forks, N.D., has been harvesting peat from a boggy area north of Thief River Falls, Minn., for about 30 years. But it's running low on peat and wants to expand about a half mile away. Hawkes specializes in processed peat that helps keep golf greens and sports fields around the world in top condition.

The regulatory process has been frustrating, said Hawkes vice president Kevin Pierce.

"On a good deal, it's probably a two- to four-year process. The one we are on right now, because we had to go to the Supreme Court, we're over 10 years," said Pierce.

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The expansion proposal landed in front of the Supreme Court when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claimed jurisdiction of the area under the Clean Water Act, meaning the mine needed a federal permit.

Hawkes disputed that finding, arguing the site was so far from a federally recognized navigable waterway that it couldn't be connected. The Army Corps said that decision could not be challenged.

So, Hawkes sued, arguing that when a federal agency claims jurisdiction they have a right to challenge that decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually agreed and Hawkes won its challenge, so it no longer needs a federal permit for the peat mine. An attorney who represented Hawkes expects the impact to be limited to a relatively small number of cases where the federal jurisdiction is questionable under federal regulations.

But for Hawkes, it means the project's fate now moves to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is now deciding whether the project requires an environmental impact statement. A recent public comment period on an environmental worksheet brought only a dozen responses and most were supportive of the expansion.

But the DNR does have concerns.

"That site has been ranked as a site of high biodiversity significance," said Environmental Review Unit Supervisor Randall Doneen. "Sites ranked as 'high' contain occurrences of very good quality of the rare species and high-quality examples of native plant communities."

Peat is the result of plants partially decaying in acidic, wet conditions with little oxygen.

To mine the peat, water is drained from the bog to dry the top layer of peat. A few inches are collected each year with giant vacuum harvesters. The mine can eventually reach a depth of several feet.

Doneen says the mined area would be reclaimed, but the diverse habitat can never be fully restored.

Because this site is considered to have high biodiversity significance, it must be restored to equivalent or better habitat.

There's also potential for downstream erosion when water released from the mine increases the flow in a nearby river.

Pierce argues his company uses proven methods to manage water from the site and has a history of turning mined areas into diverse, healthy wetlands filled with wildlife.

In general, peat mining has a relatively small environmental footprint, according to Kurt Johnson, Research Program Manager at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth. His work focuses on peat research and permitting. Peat mines in Minnesota cover about four or five square miles.

"The site, as all mining sites, is impacted pretty profoundly because you are removing all the vegetation and draining them so they're not functioning as a wetland in the way that they were," said Johnson, "but the environmental impacts are pretty much limited to the site and they are restorable."

One of the biggest challenges in restoring a peat mine is preventing invasive plant species from taking over the mined area.

Peat mines are required to meet water quality standards for water leaving the mine site, including limits for mercury. Meeting mercury standards should not be an issue for the Hawkes mine, Johnson said, but it is a significant challenge for mines in northeast Minnesota because the Lake Superior watershed has very low mercury limits. Some mines in that part of the state cannot meet mercury standards unless better treatment technology is developed, Johnson said.

An emerging area of peat mine regulation involves climate change, and greenhouse gas emission. Wetlands store carbon which is released by the mining. Johnson expects greenhouse gas emissions to be a regulatory issue in the future. He said researchers are currently working to determine the carbon footprint of peat mining.

The Minnesota DNR expects to decide by the end of July if the proposed Hawkes mine needs further environmental review.