In the copper-nickel mining debate, everyone says they agree on the need to protect our water. But whether we can have copper-nickel mines in one of the planet’s most water-rich environments and still protect that water is where folks most often part company.
On the “Yes We Can” side are those who put their faith in Minnesota’s regulatory agencies and in the Legislature, who they say they trust will take the steps necessary to prevent acid drainage into lakes and rivers. These are folks who tout Minnesota’s strong environmental laws as evidence of the state’s commitment to protecting the environment. “Better it be done here, where it’ll be done right,” is the theme song for folks on this side of the debate.
On the other side are those who have largely lost faith in the ability of our government to adequately regulate big companies, particularly politically powerful ones engaged in high risk, yet often lucrative, activities— like mining. It’s not a question of government lacking the resources, it’s a matter of political will— a will that is invariably tested to the breaking point whenever jobs are on the line.
Many of us probably vacillate between these views at various times… I know I have.
But for those who follow such issues closely, as I’ve tried to do in recent years, there are revelations that either shake your confidence or reinforce your perspective.
For me, the realization that many of the permits issued to mining operations in our region don’t actually require compliance with pollution standards was the one that shook my confidence in state regulators to the core. Instead of requiring compliance with pollution standards, these permits, in many cases, simply require companies to monitor their pollution discharges and report their results to the state’s Pollution Control Agency. As long as a company takes a water sample once a month, has it tested, and sends the results to the MPCA, it’s in compliance with its permit, even if its discharges exceed pollution standards by orders of magnitude. To me, that’s mind-boggling. What good does it do to have strict pollution standards if the permits our regulators actually issue don’t require that companies meet those standards?
What’s worse, even when strict standards are included in permits, the political influence of major industries too often works its magic at the Legislature. Take the provision passed earlier this month in St. Paul, which exempted US Steel’s Keetac operation from having to comply with an actual standard in the permit issued by the MPCA in 2011.
As we reported last week, the provision, pushed by Iron Range legislators, prohibits the MPCA from requiring Keetac to expend any money to reduce sulfate levels in its water discharges. At issue is the so-called wild rice standard, which sets strict sulfate discharge limits of 10 mg/l to protect wild rice. It’s one example where Minnesota set a stricter standard than any other state, and would be evidence of the state’s commitment to environmental protection—if it were actually enforced.
Yet it’s not, and it won’t be until the state has the political will to walk the walk, rather than just talk when it comes to protecting our region’s water.
Keep in mind, the wild rice standard was promulgated into state pollution standards way back in 1973, and for decades the MPCA never enforced the rule. It only made it into the Keetac permit after tribal authorities and environmental groups pressed the agency to begin enforcing its own rules.
But even that small victory for the environment was largely illusory. For one thing, the permit gave US Steel seven years to bring their plant into actual compliance with the rule, and eight years for their tailings basin.
In the meantime, of course, US Steel and other mining company lobbyists joined forces with Iron Range legislators to push back against the rule. When legislators talked of weakening the rule, federal EPA officials made it clear that states can’t weaken EPA-approved pollution standards without a scientific basis. So the Legislature allotted funding to the MPCA to study the validity of the 10 mg/l standard, hoping that the study would invalidate the previous scientific foundation for the rule.
But the MPCA’s study largely upheld the science behind the strict standard. While it found that sulfate itself wasn’t toxic to wild rice, it demonstrated that the sulfate is readily converted to sulfide in river and lake sediments, which is highly toxic to wild rice and other aquatic organisms.
As a result, the MPCA took steps, prodded again by the EPA, to incorporate the wild rice standard into a draft permit it planned to issue early last year for Minntac’s tailings basin. Iron Range legislators and US Steel both said they wouldn’t stand for it and in the end, under intense political pressure, the MPCA buried the draft permit and announced shortly after that they were going to amend the wild rice standard, making it more “flexible.”
The agency argued the new approach will be even more protective of wild rice, but the UMD scientist who led the MPCA’s study disputes that claim.
In either case, the end result was further delay. The MPCA’s rulemaking process takes time— typically about two years. In the meantime, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting the MPCA from enforcing the existing standard until a new one could be promulgated.
While the MPCA currently hopes to have a new draft standard published by the end of 2016, it could still be years before the standard is actually final, since it could very well be litigated, either by environmentalists if it’s too weak, or by the mining industry if it’s not weak enough.
And even when a new standard is finally in place, it will have to be incorporated into new permits, which will likely take additional months or years. And the new permits will undoubtedly have a whole new schedule of compliance, giving the mining industry several more years to comply with the revised standard. If we’re lucky, that might bring plants into compliance by 2027-2030, and who knows if they’ll even be operating by then.
Now I understand that plenty of readers will undoubtedly see this recitation of the history of the regulation of a single pollutant as evidence of the good work of state regulators and politicians who are standing up for the Mesabi Range’s primary industry. That’s not an unreasonable position for folks who depend on mining.
Yet for the 99.8 percent of Minnesotans who don’t depend on mining for their paycheck, and who wonder if they can rely on state regulators or the Legislature to protect water they care about from an industry that is far more toxic than taconite mining, this history should be instructive.