The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency plans to reject a request from U.S. Steel for temporary waivers of pollution standards, known as variances, at its Minntac facility, the largest taconite mine and processing facility on the Iron Range.
U.S. Steel had asked for a 20-year variance from water quality standards for sulfate and other pollutants in water from its massive tailings basin, some 11 miles around, that seeps into groundwater and nearby streams. The company made the request as part of an ongoing process to draft a new water discharge permit for its facility in Mountain Iron, Minn.
Instead, the MPCA has proposed a compliance schedule within a proposed draft permit for Minntac. Agency hydrologist Erik Smith said that would achieve similar goals to what the company wanted.
"One of the main reasons that we're denying this variance is we think the compliance schedule in the permit does the same thing, and gives them relief," Smith said. "They don't have to meet some of the limits right away, because we know they can't. It gives them time and proposes a path to address that."
For example, the permit sets 5- and 10-year targets for U.S. Steel to reduce sulfate concentrations in its tailings basin, where leftover waste from the mining process is mixed with water and stored.
For years, environmental groups and Indian tribes have pushed state regulators to enforce pollution standards at Minntac. The mine has operated with an expired permit for more than 25 years.
Two years ago environmental groups sued to try to force the state to issue a new permit for Minntac. After state regulators released a draft permit a week later, the groups dropped the suit.
"We agree with PCA's (MPCA) decision to deny the variance," said Kevin Reuther, Chief Legal Officer for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one of the groups that filed that lawsuit. "But the problem as I see it is that the PCA is basically saying, 'Well, U.S. Steel, we're denying the variance, but don't worry about it, because we're going to continue to let you pollute.'"
Reuther said the MPCA has entered into schedules of compliance with U.S. Steel previously, but said the company has continually failed to meet standards.
"It's at best mixed news," said Paula Maccabee with the group WaterLegacy. "We need Minnesota agencies to have the backbone to apply the Clean Water Act, and insist that pollution be cleaned up and remediated, to protect our drinking water, our lakes, our streams, and our fish."
U.S. Steel in a statement said it has invested more than $100 million in environmental activities at Minntac over the last 10 years.
"We have been working with MPCA to develop the proper solutions to address water quality standards and we look forward to a resolution that ensures environmental protection and the competitiveness of Minnesota's iron ore mining industry," said spokesperson Meghan Cox.
The public has until Jan. 24 to comment on the MPCA proposal. The agency has scheduled a public hearing in Mountain Iron on Jan. 23.