Mining company representatives and state officials have insisted that sulfide mining can be done safely in Minnesota due to the toughness of state standards for sulfates (acid mine drainage), toxic mercury and other pollutants.

The US Environmental Pollution Agency (EPA) delegates the authority to regulate pollution to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). To keep this authority, the MPCA must comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which requires enforcement to prevent violation of water quality standards.

What if the MPCA fails to enforce mercury and water quality standards for mining projects? What protection will Minnesota anglers, hunters, residents and natural resources have against sulfide mining?

The more WaterLegacy looks into this issue, the more concerned we are that the MPCA is not enforcing mercury, sulfate and other water quality standards for ferrous (iron and taconite) and peat mining projects. Before sulfide mining can even be considered, Minnesota has to get its house in order to regulated and control mining pollution.

WaterLegacy's work

WaterLegacy is working with citizen experts and tribal staff to determine which mining permits raise the most important concerns. WaterLegacy then prepares detailed analysis comments, engages citizen comment and works closely with staff at the U.S. EPA to ensure that stronger permits are written by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and that existing water pollution laws are enforced for mining projects.

WaterLegacy has submitted detailed comments on the following mining projects:

Keetac Mercury Air Pollution: The permit proposed for this project would allow U.S. Steel’s Keetac taconite plant to expand and increase toxic mercury air emissions by up to 75.5 additional pounds per year, despite mercury-related fish consumption restrictions on many nearby lakes. WaterLegacy argued that permit requirements to reduce mercury pollution or offset mercury increases at other taconite plants were indefinite and uncertain.

Keetac Water Pollution: Permits proposed for U.S. Steel’s Keetac mine site and tailings basin site would allow degradation of water and permit non-compliance with sulfate pollution limits enacted to protect natural wild rice for another 8 or 9 years. Advocacy strengthened permit requirements.

Minntac Water Pollution:  As part of its agreement with U.S. Steel regarding mercury air emissions at Keetac, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) entered into an agreement behind closed doors to remove a requirement that U.S. Steel treat wastewater from the Minntac tailings basin. Advocacy resulted in an investigation of U.S. Steel by the U.S. EPA, which is likely to require a new permit to enforce compliance with water pollution standards.

Aitkin Agri-Peat Mercury Pollution:  The permit proposed for this project would allow the Aitkin Agri-Peat Cromwell facility to re-open a peat mine without requiring that the mine comply with mercury water quality standards. WaterLegacy argued that removing a mercury limit from is “backsliding” prohibited under the Clean Water Act. This resulted in an in-depth investigation by the U.S. EPA , putting the permit on hold.

Dunka Mine Water Pollution:  WaterLegacy advisors and citizen scientists have highlighted weaknesses in existing Dunka Mine permits and enforcement, allowing toxic pollutants from leaking waste rock stockpiles to harm the aquatic ecosystem and impair wild rice just a short distance upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The company currently responsible for the Dunka Mine, Cliffs Erie LLC, has entered into a “consent decree” agreement with the MPCA to change violations of water pollution standards.

Mesabi Nugget Water Pollution:  WaterLegacy  has opposed the issuance of a variance for Mesabi Nugget pollution that would permit the iron nugget facility to violate water quality standards for bicarbonates, hardness, total dissolved solids and specific conductance and discharge chemicals that are toxic to the aquatic system. WaterLegacy requested that water pollution treatment be required and impacts of the chemical cycles of sulfates on wild rice be studied to protect downstream resources.

WaterLegacy Results

Citizen engagement has played an important role in achieving measurable results to strengthen pollution permits and enforcement of environmental laws.

  • Deadlines for permit comments were extended for the Keetac permits and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Citizens Board hearings were scheduled in response to more than 400 comments from citizens demanding a stronger and more responsive process;
  • The MPCA specifically attributed more enforceable permits to protect wild rice from Keetac mine sulfate pollution to the level of citizen comment;

Selected Advocacy Outcomes in Collaboration with Citizens and Allies:

  • The U.S. EPA is now reviewing all mining permits in Minnesota and conferring with MPCA staff at least monthly to make sure that Clean Air Act water quality laws are being enforced for mining projects in Minnesota;
  • Keetac Water Pollution
    • The 10 milligrams per liter limit on sulfate pollution in wild rice waters will be enforced at the Keetac mine. This is the first time the wild rice sulfate water quality limit has been placed in a mining permit since the rule was enacted in 1973.
    • U.S. EPA and citizen comments resulted in a more enforceable schedule for compliance with the wild rice sulfate standard. U.S. Steel will also be required to return every year to the MPCA Citizens Board to report their progress on reducing sulfate pollution and justify the continuation of the permit.
    • Toxic selenium pollution will be monitored at the Keetac tailings basin.
  • Minntac Water Pollution; The U.S. EPA is investigating water pollution from the Minntac Tailings Basin and U.S. Steel may be required to apply for a new permit that sets a schedule for compliance with the wild rice sulfate standard.
  • Aitkin Agri-Peat Mercury Pollution: The U.S. EPA has conducted an investigation and has determed that this permit will not move forward until concerns about mercury are addressed. WaterLegacy continues to advocate that a specific limit is placed on mercury water pollution from this peat mine and that “backsliding” does not reduce Clean Water Act protection.
  • Dunka Mine Water Pollution:  Both the U.S. EPA and the MPCA have reviewed the issued of concern to WaterLegacy in connection with plans for reissuance of a water pollution permit for the Dunka Mine. WaterLegacy continues to engage with both the MPCA and the U.S. EPA to require stronger permits and pollution reduction to protect wild rice and reduce pollution that is toxic to the aquatic ecosystem.
  • Mesabi Nugget: The EPA has expressed criticism of the MPCA’s proposal to give Mesabi Nugget an indefinite variance before requiring compliance with water quality standards. Issuance of permit is delayed pending further investigation and review.


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