Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Environmental groups seek to intervene in U.S. Steel lawsuits

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/6/17

REGIONAL—There is yet another strange twist in the decades-long battle by environmental groups to get the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to update U.S. Steel’s permit for its Minntac tailings …

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Environmental groups seek to intervene in U.S. Steel lawsuits

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REGIONAL—There is yet another strange twist in the decades-long battle by environmental groups to get the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to update U.S. Steel’s permit for its Minntac tailings basin north of Virginia. A coalition of three environmental groups has moved to intervene as a co-defendant in a lawsuit filed by U.S. Steel against the MPCA for failing to regulate the company in a timely manner.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, and the Save Lake Superior Association argue that U.S. Steel’s lawsuit seeks to undermine an agreement that the groups reached with the MPCA late last year to finally issue a new operating permit for Minntac’s tailings basin, a quarter century after its most recent permit expired.

The operating permit for the Minntac tailings basin expired in 1992, but under federal and state law the company can continue to operate on its expired permit as long as it has applied for permit renewal. However, efforts by the MPCA to actually renew the permit have been the subject of intense pressure from a number of interests, including U.S. Steel, Iron Range legislators who back the company, and environmentalists and tribal authorities who want to stop the discharge of water with high concentrations of sulfates and other pollutants.

The three environmental groups filed suit against the MPCA last November, demanding that the agency issue a new permit for Minntac that complies with current pollution standards. A week later, the MPCA published a draft permit, and the groups agreed to dismiss their suit as long as a final permit was issued in a timely manner. Then in February, U.S. Steel sued the MPCA seeking to stop the agency from issuing the final Clean Water Act permit. U.S. Steel claims that until pending rulemaking is complete and two petitions the company filed are resolved in the company’s favor, the MPCA cannot issue a new water pollution permit for the Minntac facility.

“U.S. Steel’s lawsuit is yet another delaying tactic to prevent the application of modern, science-based standards to protect our water,” stated Hudson Kingston, staff attorney for Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “Minnesotans deserve standards set by current science, not a zombie permit that expired the same year Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” topped the charts.”

The groups contend that U.S. Steel’s actions and position in this lawsuit could have repercussions for other companies, including PolyMet Mining. “If U.S. Steel’s position is upheld that the MPCA can’t issue any permits until completing all pending rule changes, this should mean PolyMet’s Clean Water Act permit cannot be issued either,” stated Lori Andresen, President of Save Our Sky Blue Waters.

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