Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Lawsuit seeks to force response to Minntac pollution

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/9/16

REGIONAL— A coalition of environmental groups filed suit in state court on Wednesday seeking to force the state’s Pollution Control Agency to regulate pollution from U.S. Steel’s Minntac …

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Lawsuit seeks to force response to Minntac pollution

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REGIONAL— A coalition of environmental groups filed suit in state court on Wednesday seeking to force the state’s Pollution Control Agency to regulate pollution from U.S. Steel’s Minntac tailings basin, located north of Virginia.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), on behalf of itself and partner organizations, the Save Lake Superior Association and Save Our Sky Blue Waters, alleges that the MPCA has failed to control known pollutants, including sulfates, that Minntac is discharging into two separate watersheds from its 8,000-acre taconite tailings basin. The basin is known to leak millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Dark and Sandy river watersheds as well as into groundwater. MCEA staff attorney Hudson Kingston said the discharge of sulfates, in particular, “has wiped out once-abundant wild rice in nearby lakes.”

The MPCA’s own records show that, for at least five pollutants, Minntac is causing violations of water quality standards in groundwater and downstream rivers and lakes, including a trout stream, according to a press statement issued by the groups. They argue that the MPCA’s records also show that the groundwater around the tailings basin no longer meets drinking water standards.

U.S. Steel built the tailings storage facility in the 1960s, prior to modern environmental laws. But Kingston said that does not excuse the company from complying with current pollution standards. The MPCA last issued the company a water discharge permit in 1987, a permit which expired 24 years ago. According to the legal complaint filed by MCEA, the expired permit establishes discharge limits only for oil and grease, pH, and total suspended solids. The permit does require the company to monitor its discharges for other pollutants, such as sulfates, bicarbonates, and total dissolved solids, but it sets no limits on those discharges.

“The lax terms of the Minntac permit have had significant and severe consequences on surrounding water resources,” states the MCEA legal brief. “None of the surface waters adjacent to this facility meet water quality standards. Indeed, for some pollutants, the standards are exceeded by more than five times the surface water standard. In this remote area of the state, there is no question that the sources of these pollutants is Minntac’s tailings basin, as there are no other point sources discharging to these waters.”

The MPCA has long acknowledged that Minntac’s tailings basin is in violation of pollution standards, but it has struggled to bring the politically-connected company into compliance. The MPCA, under pressure from environmental groups and some northern Minnesota Indian tribes, had prepared to issue a new draft permit in 2015, but U.S. Steel officials prevailed on Iron Range legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton to put that effort on hold.

That’s not how pollution standards are supposed to work, notes Kingston. “Companies across the state of Minnesota are required to comply with the Clean Water Act,” says Hudson Kingston, staff attorney at MCEA. “We only expect U.S. Steel to be held to the same standard as everyone else.”

The lawsuit comes as the MPCA is considering issuing permits for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine, a type of mining that is known to pose significantly greater environmental risks than taconite mining. That worries LeRoger Lind, president of Save the Lake Superior Association. “We are concerned that MPCA is considering permitting much more risky sulfide mining in the Lake Superior basin, but hasn’t shown that our existing iron mines can operate without polluting,” he said.

Mining pollution

The lawsuit is just the latest salvo by environmental groups as they push for a clean-up of longstanding mining pollution on the Iron Range. In 2015, the group Water Legacy, cited ongoing mining pollution as its primary justification for a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking the federal government to withdraw the MPCA’s authority to regulate pollution under the Clean Water Act. The EPA is currently investigating Water Legacy’s allegations and is expected to complete that investigation by the end of the year.

The MPCA had no immediate comment on the MCEA lawsuit.

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