Existing Minnesota Mines

Minnesota DNR map of the Mesabi Range Mines.

WaterLegacy Litigation

Minntac Water Pollution 

U.S. Steel’s Minntac taconite tailings basin has violated Minnesota water quality standards, including the wild rice sulfate standard, since at least 1987. WaterLegacy opposed the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) 2014 and 2016 draft permits for Minntac as inadequate to control pollution, particularly sulfate pollution that kills wild rice and increases mercury contamination of fish. Despite our opposition, MPCA issued a weak water pollution permit to U.S. Steel.

WaterLegacy and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa appealed to reverse the permit. On December 9, 2019, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the MPCA lacked justification for failing to set limits on surface pollution. Criticisms of the MPCA permit for failing to control discharged through groundwater are now in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Mesabi Nugget Water Pollution

WaterLegacy 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, along with environmental and tribal allies, filed suit in federal district court in June 2013 to overturn a variance from pollution standards granted by the MPCA and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA settled with WaterLegacy and our allies and reversed the Mesabi Nugget variance in July 2014. The plant was idled and there has been no announcement of its reopening.

WaterLegacy Permitting Advocacy

WaterLegacy has submitted detailed comments to improve pollution control at existing Minnesota mining facilities.

Keetac Water Pollution

In 2011, under pressure to implement Minnesota’s 10 parts per million wild rice sulfate standard, MPCA issued permits for U.S. Steel’s Keetac mine site and tailings basin site that imposed limits on sulfate pollution. But these permits allowed a delay in implementation of these sulfate pollution limits for 9 years. In 2015, before U.S. Steel was required to treat or control sulfate, the Minnesota Legislature passed a session law exempting U.S. Steel from compliance with the Keetac permits.

Aitkin Agri-Peat Mercury Pollution

MPCA initially proposed a permit in 2011 that 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 is “backsliding” prohibited under the Clean Water Act. WaterLegacy’s comments put the permit on hold and resulted in an in-depth investigation by EPA. The Aitkin Agri-Peat permit was eventually issued in 2013, with water quality-based limits on mercury discharge.

Dunka Mine Water Pollution

WaterLegacy citizen scientists highlighted weaknesses in water pollution permits at the now-closed Dunka mine, located just a short distance upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Toxic pollutants from leaking waste rock stockpiles harm the aquatic ecosystem and impair wild rice. WaterLegacy sent letters to MPCA in 2009 and 2011 highlighting the need for additional pollution control, and shared our research with EPA. Yet, the water pollution permit for the Dunka mine has not been updated and the water treatment plant remains shuttered. The Dunka mine is an example of poorly controlled pollution when a mining company declares bankruptcy.

Petition to Withdraw MPCA’s Authority

In response to MPCA’s failure to reissue mining permits and set requirements that comply with the Clean Water Act and MPCA’s failure to enforce existing permits, WaterLegacy filed a petition with the EPA to withdraw MPCA’s authority to issue National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) water pollution permits in Minnesota.