Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

MPCA hears range of views on Minntac variance

U.S. Steel seeks relief from proposed new permit for tailings basin

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/24/18

REGIONAL— Officials from the state’s Pollution Control Agency heard varied perspectives from an Iron Range audience that turned out Tuesday for a public hearing on the agency’s proposed denial …

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MPCA hears range of views on Minntac variance

U.S. Steel seeks relief from proposed new permit for tailings basin


REGIONAL— Officials from the state’s Pollution Control Agency heard varied perspectives from an Iron Range audience that turned out Tuesday for a public hearing on the agency’s proposed denial of U.S. Steel’s variance request for the Minntac tailings basin.

Members of the public spoke mostly in support of the agency’s decision, or urged tougher action to clean up the longstanding pollution problems emanating from Minntac’s 8,000-acre tailings basin. Representatives of U.S. Steel and affiliated associations urged approval of the company’s request, mostly citing the high cost of compliance.

But MPCA officials argued that the variance was largely unnecessary because the company had already agreed to established timetables for compliance, and the agency’s proposed new permit did not impose new standards in many cases.

While the MPCA is working to issue a new water discharge permit for Minntac, the MPCA’s Erik Smith told the audience on Tuesday that his agency understands that the company won’t be in compliance with the water quality standards established in the permit, at least not for years. That permit includes what’s known as a Schedule of Compliance, which provides the company a timetable, often involving many years, to bring its discharges into compliance with the limits set in the permit. In addition, those schedules of compliance are frequently extended if the company can show that it can’t meet the established timetables.

In effect, said Smith, the MPCA believes a variance is unnecessary since the new permit they seek to issue imposes few new limits on the Minntac facility anytime in the near future.

Smith outlined three primary issues associated with the Minntac facility, including:

‰ Contamination of adjacent groundwater as the contaminated basin water slowly leaks into the surrounding aquifer. MPCA’s Smith said U.S. Steel has already indicated that it believes it can comply with the groundwater clean-up by 2025, but the company is now seeking to push clean-up decades into the future. The company’s variance request, which the MPCA intends to deny, would allow the company to merely monitor its groundwater pollution for the next 20 years, without having to clean it up.

‰ Discharge station: The facility is also discharging a large volume of contaminated water into the Dark River on an ongoing basis from a discharge point on the west side of the basin. The company used to discharge water into the Sandy River, on the basin’s east side, as well, but the MPCA required the company to install a collection system at that outlet several years ago, which pumps outflowing water back into the tailings basin. The MPCA wants the company to install a similar system to stem the flow into the Dark River and the new permit would set pollution limits at the Dark River outflow until the collection system is in place. Once that system is built, the company would no longer have to monitor pollution levels in the downstream waters and the pollution standards would be lifted. U.S. Steel is seeking less strict limits on its outflow to the Dark River during the interim period while it is installing its collection system.

‰ Contamination of other surface water. The basin continues to seep large volumes of contaminated water into other surface streams and lakes near the facility. The company is seeking a variance that would allow Minntac to simply monitor its pollution discharges for about five years, then re-evaluate if the company can reduce its pollution levels. Their request also seeks a variance from water quality standards for the next 20 years.

Public comment

The prospect of years of continued violations of pollution standards didn’t sit well with some of the audience. Herb Sellars, who built a home on Dark Lake 24 years ago, said he was distressed to learn of the contamination levels in the Dark River, which feeds into Dark Lake. “What are you going to do to mitigate the problems for the people of Dark Lake?” he asked.

Robert Bassing, a retiree from U.S. Steel, suggested that the state should ask the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the facility a Superfund site. Bassing said the government has as much responsibility as U.S. Steel for the situation at the tailings basin. “The government allowed US Steel to build a tailings basin that allowed seepage,” he said.

Bassing was referring to an explanation of MPCA’s Smith, who had noted in his presentation before the comment period that the 11-mile-long dike system that surrounds Minntac’s massive tailings basin is unlined and allows seepage from underneath the dikes.

Bob Tammen, of Soudan, said the tailings basin has been in existence for fifty years and that cleanup would likely take decades more. “One lifetime should be enough time to clean it up,” said Tammen, who urged that the MPCA take a tougher approach to the issue.

But Larry Sutherland, who manages US Steel’s Minnesota ore operations, noted Minntac’s large workforce and its sizable contributions to the state’s school trust fund through royalty payments. “Our company accounts for 90-percent of income to the fund,” said Sutherland, “and this puts the future of the school trust at risk.”

Sutherland said the steel industry is being hit hard by foreign competition. “We have to reduce costs,” he said. “That’s the only way to remain competitive.” He said the MPCA’s proposed permit fails to consider what he called the high-cost of meeting the sulfate standard for groundwater, of 250 milligrams per liter.

Two groundwater test wells near the east edge of the Minntac property show sulfate levels of between 300 and 500 mg/l, according to MPCA’s Smith, which would have to be reduced to the current federal drinking standard by 2025, or sometime after that.

The proposed permit does not impose the state’s longstanding wild rice standard of 10 mg/l, which is currently under review.

Steve Giorgi, director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, called the process “unfair,” and said the proposal to deny the variance suggests that communities may have a difficult time receiving variances to meet the wild rice standard for sulfates, if the MPCA eventually begins to enforce it.

Mike Banovetz, of Ely, questioned how the MPCA can enforce a permit when it lacks evidence that the environment is being harmed. The MPCA’s Smith had, in answer to an earlier question, indicated that the agency hadn’t really evaluated the degree to which seepage from the tailings basin was harming the environment.

The public comment period of the agency’s proposed denial wrapped up on Wednesday, Jan. 24. Agency officials gave no indication when they might issue a final decision on the variance request.


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If Minntac can't afford to clean up its own tailings basin, and as continued mining operations will only make the pollution worse, how will the state of Minnesota be able to afford the clean-up?

Monday, January 29, 2018