Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

MPCA proposes to deny tailings basin variance for Minntac

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/10/18

REGIONAL— The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is proposing to deny a request by U.S. Steel for a variance that would exempt the company’s Minntac tailings basin from several of the state’s …

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MPCA proposes to deny tailings basin variance for Minntac


REGIONAL— The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is proposing to deny a request by U.S. Steel for a variance that would exempt the company’s Minntac tailings basin from several of the state’s water quality standards. The agency will take public comments on the proposal at a public hearing set for Tuesday, Jan. 23, at the Mt. Iron Community Center, from 4-6 p.m.

U.S. Steel submitted its variance request last fall, after the MPCA issued a draft permit that requires the company to reduce discharge levels of several pollutants, including sulfate, total dissolved solids, hardness, bicarbonate, and specific conductance, from its tailings basin, all of which currently exceed water quality standards.

The tailings basin discharges the pollutants into both surface and groundwater and the MPCA has documented the violations for a number of years. Minntac’s current tailings basin discharge permit expired in 1992, and the MPCA has faced political backlash from the Iron Range legislative delegation as it has sought to bring the company under stricter regulatory control.

The MPCA finally issued its draft permit for Minntac last fall, just days after environmental groups filed suit against the agency, arguing that the state regulator had failed to meet its obligations to enforce state water quality standards on the company.

U.S. Steel filed its application for a variance along with comments it submitted to MPCA as part of the public review phase of the draft permit. In its application, company officials argue that the company should not be required to comply with groundwater standards for sulfate and dissolved solids because the aquifer underlying the tailings basin had naturally elevated levels of manganese and iron, which made it less desirable for drinking. But MPCA officials argue that those contaminants are relatively common and easy to treat through standard water softening, which is not the case for sulfate. U.S. Steel also argued that its contamination of groundwater is inconsequential, since the company owns the surface above it, which would preclude the public using the water for drinking. But MPCA officials note, and U.S. Steel officials acknowledge, that groundwater moves through the rock and that the zone of contamination continues to grow and may eventually spread outside of U.S. Steel’s ownership. The agency also notes that land ownership changes over time.

As for surface discharges, U.S. Steel officials argue that they should not be forced to spend millions of dollars to clean up sulfate and dissolved solids levels in its tailings basin when the levels found in the basin are not known to be significantly harmful to human health. The MPCA’s proposed Minntac permit would require the company to reduce the sulfate level in the tailings basin to 357 milligrams-per-liter, which a company-produced study predicted would allow the company to meet a 250 mg/l drinking water standard for sulfate. The company had previously agreed to meet stricter sulfate standards in its tailings basin as part of an agreement with the MPCA back in 2011. But the company later backed out of that agreement and has been waging a political fight since then to avoid having to comply.

MPCA officials say they reject the company’s proposed variance for surface water discharges from its tailings basin since the new draft permit for the company already provides a schedule of compliance that will be based on what is technically feasible in terms of clean-up.

The Iron Mining Association expressed concern about the MPCA’s proposed denial, issuing a statement late on Tuesday. “The MPCA’s proposed denial of U.S. Steel’s variance application is very concerning because it poses challenges for a larger employer on the Iron Range and raises questions about how the agency will respond to variance applications from other industrial facilities and municipalities in the state,” IMA President Kelsey Johnson said.

“The MPCA has continually used the potential for variances to brush away concerns raised by multiple stakeholders,” she continued. “But this proposed denial raises serious concerns that the agency has no intention of granting variances on the wild rice sulfate standard.”

Besides the Jan. 23 hearing in Mt. Iron, members of the public can submit comments on the MPCA’s proposal variance denial by 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 24. Comments should include a statement of your interest in the matter, a statement of the action you wish the MPCA to take, and reasons supporting your position. Written comments can be submitted to Erik Smith, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 520 Lafayette Rd. N, St. Paul, MN 55155 or to


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