2016: Pressured by WaterLegacy’s Petition to Withdraw State Authority to Regulate Water Pollution and a new Lawsuit, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Proposes Draft Minntac Tailings Pollution Permit.

Our Verdict – MPCA Draft Permit is Inadequate to Control Minntac Pollution.
What is 8,700 acres in size, is located in the headwaters of international waters, and has effectively resisted permit controls on pollution for a quarter of a century? The Minntac Tailings Basin.
Just days after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) was sued for failure to regulate Minntac Tailings Basin pollution, the MPCA proposed a draft wastewater permit for Minntac with an associated “fact sheet.” MPCA’s proposal is a weak and inadequate permit that would not require Minntac to comply with either Minnesota surface water quality standards or limits on groundwater pollution. 
This permit, “stands the Clean Water Act on its head and lets the polluter set the standard” says Paula Maccabee, Advocacy Director and Counsel for WaterLegacy, in the St. Louis County Timberjay’s story on the proposed Minntac permit.
The MPCA’s draft permit for the Minntac Tailings Basin was wholly inadequate:
The draft permit would never require compliance with Minnesota’s sulfate limit of 10 parts per million in wild rice waters. Minntac tailings seepage has already decimated wild rice in the Sand River and Sandy and Little Sandy Lakes.
The draft permit doesn’t even monitor, let alone limit metals like copper and zinc that seep out from the Minntac Tailings Basin at levels that violate Minnesota rules to protect fish and aquatic life. The permit would allow levels of salts and ions that destroy the aquatic food chain.  
The draft permit would allow high levels of sulfate to flow downstream, increasing the levels of toxic methylmercury in fish in waters that are already impaired due to high mercury, such as the Sturgeon River, Little Fork River, Rainy River and Lake of the Woods. 
The draft permit doesn’t limit manganese in groundwater or surface drinking water to the levels set by the Minnesota Health Department to protect infants and children from brain damage.
The draft permit tries to evade the federal Clean Water Act by claiming that pollution collected in the basin and discharged to streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands through groundwater seepage doesn’t really count as surface water pollution, even if state scientists have proved that the pollution comes from the Minntac Tailings Basin.
WaterLegacy Action to Control Minntac Water Pollution (2016)

In response to WaterLegacy outreach, more than 680 citizens took action asking the MPCA to rewrite the Minntac permit to hold the polluter accountable, comply with Minnesota water quality standards and protect Lake Superior Basin water quality, wild rice, fish, tribal resource and human health.

READ HERE: WaterLegacy’s detailed comments oppose the draft Minntac water pollution (NPDES/SDS) permit and recommend specific changes to control pollution, comply with the Clean Water Act and protect Minnesota waters.


2014: WaterLegacy, Native Tribes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criticize Failure to Set Limits for Minntac Tailings Pollution

After nearly three decades of pollution in violation of Minnesota water quality standards, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency finally suggested that they would prepare a pollution control permit. The pre-publication draft of the permit, released to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff, tribal staff and a few stakeholders, failed to require Minntac to comply with water quality standards by any specific date and failed to require seepage from the huge, 13-square-mile tailings impoundment to comply with the Clean Water Act when this pollution affects wetlands, streams and wild rice beds.

Read in the Star Tribune about the failure to regulate pollution at the Minntac tailings basin, the destruction of wild rice and mercury pollution in fish in the Star Tribune. "Minntac is a poster child for failure to regulate pollution," said Paula Maccabee, attorney for WaterLegacy.

View coverage on Northland News Center television, where WaterLegacy’s Paula Maccabee explains that copper-nickel mining should not be approved when the State is still ineffective in controlling taconite mine pollution, "What are we doing thinking of allowing copper–nickel mining, which is a new, and a different, and a more toxic kind of mining? Let's first get our house in order."

Read highly critical comments explaining the inadequacy of the December 2014 Minntac tailings basin pre-publication draft water pollution permit: WaterLegacy comments explaining, "This document neither requires compliance nor schedules events that will predictably lead to compliance with water quality standards. There is no date in this document – ever – by which compliance with water quality based effluent limits is required."

Also read compelling comments of the EPA and comments of the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage Bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

WaterLegacy has Opposed Expansion of the Minntac Mine without Comprehensive Environmental Review to Prevent Significant Harm to Water Quality and Human Health

The Minntac mine has been continually and incrementally expanding, with no requirement by either federal or state agencies for a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate harm to the environment or alternatives to minimize that harm. When Minntac sought a Clean Water Act Section 404 wetlands destruction permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2012 to allow an additional 483-acre "extension" of the mine in 2012 and wetlands destruction, WaterLegacy called for an EIS and an investigation of water quality issues and alternatives to minimize environmental impacts.

Aerial photo of Minntac mine, tailings basin and processing facility from documents filed by U.S. Steel in 2012.

  • Read WaterLegacy's (2012) comments requesting an EIS for Minntac's proposed mine expansion, which highlight water quality impacts of the Minntac mine and tailings basin and summarize, "Despite the magnitude of Minntac's overall impacts on water resources and land usage, Minntac has, to date, avoided the scrutiny of an EIS and any legal obligation to provide alternatives to prevent, minimize or mitigate environmental effects of its mining facilities."

According to the federal Clean Water Act, a wetlands destruction permit cannot be granted unless the State where the project is located certifies that the project is and will be in compliance with state and federal water quality standards. WaterLegacy opposed Minnesota's certification of the Minntac 483-acre expansion as contrary to both state and federal law:

  • Read WaterLegacy's (2014) comments opposing Clean Water Act certification for Minntac's proposed mine expansion. These comments emphasize:

    "Neither federal nor state law allows the MPCA to certify the proposed Minntac Mine Expansion. This project is a textbook case of what Section 401 was intended to prevent – the increase of discharge that already violates water quality standards by a polluter operating outside the law for a matter of decades.

    "WaterLegacy is concerned that, where mining is concerned, Minnesota state regulators are unwilling or unable to say 'no,' regardless of the facts or the law. In the case of the Minntac mine and tailings basin, the lack of regulatory constraints may have already impaired waters used for the production of wild rice and for aquatic life and increased mercury contamination of fish, impairing their use for consumption. This wholesale regulatory failure is more troubling since the resources impaired are vital to subsistence anglers and gatherers, including Minnesota tribes, whose treaty rights are also compromised by the failure of regulatory action."

WaterLegacy has Objected to the State's Practice of Agreeing with Minntac Behind Closed Doors that Compliance with Water Pollution Standards would not be Required

In WaterLegacy's review of documents pertaining to the Keetac Mine Air Pollution Permit in 2011, we learned that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) had negotiated behind closed doors a "Schedule of Compliance" that removed any requirement that U.S. Steel treat wastewater from the Minntac tailings basin. Rather than amend Minntac's water pollution permit in an open and public process, where citizens, Indian tribes, the EPA and other stakeholders would have an opportunity to comment, the MPCA signed an agreement that included no requirement that the Minntac tailings basin would ever meet water quality standards for sulfates and other pollution.

As a result of advocacy by Indian tribes, WaterLegacy and other stakeholders, the EPA began an investigation of Minntac tailings basin pollution and increased pressure on the MPCA to write a new permit with an enforceable schedule that would lead to compliance with water quality standards.

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