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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Regulating mining

Petition reveals a state government captured by a major industry


REGIONAL—A St. Paul organization, known as Water Legacy, has quietly assembled a devastating indictment of the state of Minnesota and its unwillingness to regulate the taconite mining industry, for decades.

It’s all part of a petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that seeks a federal assumption of regulatory authority over an industry that has routinely violated the Clean Water Act, with little consequence. The document includes nearly 500 pages of official records assembled over the course of years through multiple public information requests.

It’s not a petition that will go away anytime soon. Under federal law, the EPA is mandated to respond to the violations detailed in the report, and they are many.

In the petition, Water Legacy’s legal counsel, Paula Maccabee, outlines the very real impacts that our region’s rivers, lakes, and streams have experienced as a result of discharges from area mines that routinely violate federal standards. And most of those mines are operating under multiple expired permits, some of which have been expired for two decades or more.

The EPA is not unaware of the situation. Indeed, as we report this week in our story on the petition, the EPA and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency signed an agreement in 2013 that committed the MPCA to begin to clear up the backlog of expired mining permits. Among the goals in that agreement was completion of a new permit for the Minntac tailings basin by the end of 2014. The MPCA missed that deadline, but had planned to issue a draft permit last March. But that permit would have required Minntac, eventually, to comply with the state’s 10 milligram/liter sulfate standard— and that’s when Iron Range legislators cut MPCA regulators off at the knees. Keep in mind, the EPA said the draft permit was unacceptable because it didn’t set a firm date for compliance. But even that was too much for the state’s top officials. Maccabee, in the petition, cites a transcript of a Minnesota Public Radio interview with Gov. Mark Dayton, in which Dayton said that U.S. Steel had told state regulators they “wouldn’t accept a 10 mg/l sulfate standard.” In short, the MPCA deep-sixed the draft permit and Minntac will continue to operate on a permit that expired in 1992, for the foreseeable future.

What Water Legacy’s petition lays bare is a case of the industry setting its own rules, essentially regulating the actions of Minnesota state government, rather than the other way around.

Minnesota’s reputation for strong environmental laws is a paper tiger. What good are laws and rules if the industry doesn’t have to follow them, or simply tells the state to change them whenever it determines they are inconvenient?

Certainly, there will be many in our region who will dismiss the claims made by Water Legacy in this petition. But the hundreds of pages of documents assembled by the organization are almost all official state or federal records. The group’s conclusions are eye-opening, to be sure, but they are well supported by the facts.

The timing of the petition makes it all the more inconvenient for mining advocates seeking the green light for a whole new, and more environmentally-hazardous, form of mining in our region. We’ve heard for years the argument that Minnesota is the best place to mine copper-nickel, since here we do it right.

Yet the revelations put forward by Water Legacy demonstrate exactly the opposite. When it comes to regulation of metallic mining, Minnesota might as well be Texas or North Dakota, two states where the oil industry dominates the political process and pollutes virtually at will.

While Water Legacy’s case was strong, the 2015 legislative session, which was dominated by environmental rollbacks pushed by Iron Range legislators, was simply the icing on the cake. It was case study in industry capture of government.

While some on the Iron Range may have viewed the session as a victory, it could well prove a hollow one. By overplaying their role as handmaidens to the mining industry, Iron Range legislators may prompt the EPA to take action. If so, it will be federal regulators enforcing Minnesota’s environmental rules, and legislators won’t be able to intimidate them. Now that would be a wake-up call.