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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: An award for polluting

The story of the Dunka Pit’s “operator award” reveals MPCA’s downfall


If you need an example of how the state’s Pollution Control Agency has lost control of water pollution from our region’s mining operations, you’ll find none better than the revelation that appeared in a June 7 letter-to-the-editor in the Timberjay.

I was surprised to read in the letter that Cliffs Erie-Dunka had been among 384 wastewater treatment entities to receive an “Operator Award” for its maintenance of an engineered wetland designed to treat water discharge from the former Dunka Pit. The award, among other things, lauded the facility for consistent compliance with its water discharge (NPDES) permit.

The former Dunka taconite mine included a significant amount of sulfide-bearing overburden that Erie had stripped away beginning in 1964. Over time, the now-defunct corporation had left about 50 million tons of sulfide-bearing rock piled near the pit edge. By the 1970s, state regulators were aware that runoff from that pile was pouring toxic heavy metals at astronomical levels into a nearby stream that drained into Birch Lake’s Bob Bay.

We wrote about this issue back in 2015 and while steps taken by LTV prior to its bankruptcy helped reduce the toxicity of Dunka’s discharges, the facility continues to discharge levels of several pollutants, including sulfate, hardness, nickel, and specific conductance that regularly exceeded applicable standards by huge margins. Sulfate levels at the worst of the discharge points were averaging about 1,800 milligrams per liter, far more than any applicable standard. So how is it that the Dunka wastewater treatment operation is able to receive an award for its compliance with its discharge permit when the operation’s own test results show it is exceeding water quality standards?

I put that question to the MPCA, and I’ll let Darin Broton, the new spokesperson for the agency, explain:  

“The current permit does not have effluent limits for sulfate, hardness, and specific conductance and thus there is no permit noncompliance associated with these parameters.  The permit does not have an effluent limit for nickel as an individual parameter for the constructed wetland treatment systems – the permit instead includes an effluent limit for ‘additive toxicity’ of which nickel is a component.  All five wetland treatment system discharges routinely meet the permit ‘additive toxicity’ effluent limit.”

There is a lot in this answer, but let’s be clear about the most basic issue— the MPCA’s approach to mining pollution far too often is to eliminate any requirement to comply with a specific effluent standard. As long as the company takes its monthly water samples and sends the results to the MPCA, they are in full compliance with their permit, even if the test results show the facility is polluting Minnesota waters. This approach by the MPCA not only allows mining companies to continue to pollute, it actually indemnifies the company against lawsuits that citizens might otherwise be allowed to file.

It also allows copper-nickel mining supporters to make misleading claims about the environmental impacts of sulfide-based rock, by suggesting that the Dunka pit does not pose an environmental hazard simply because it is in compliance with an unconscionably-weak discharge permit.

It was, therefore, no surprise to learn recently that the professional staff at the Environmental Protection Agency had similar concerns about the PolyMet water discharge permit, in that it contained no water quality-based effluent limits. This is a persistent and troubling pattern for the MPCA. Advocates of copper-nickel mining have maintained that Minnesotans can rely on our state’s regulators to protect our water from mining impacts, but the history of mining pollution regulation has demonstrated exactly the opposite.

Minnesotans may believe that state regulators at the MPCA are minding the store and protecting our water quality. But as we’ve seen with Dunka, and more recently with the revelation that the MPCA took steps to keep the EPA’s comments on the PolyMet permit under wraps, it’s not clear whether the MPCA is part of the solution to pollution, or part of the problem.