Keetac Water Pollution

Permits Set Wild Rice Sulfate Limits

In 2011, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) had not required any pollution discharger to comply with the wild rice sulfate standard for decades. As part of an expansion of the U.S. Steel Keetac mine, the MPCA proposed new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System/State Disposal System (NPDES/SDS) water pollution permits for the U.S. Steel Keetac mine, plant, and tailings basin. These new Keetac permits included water quality-based effluent limits for sulfate based on Minnesota’s 10 parts per million (mg/L) wild rice sulfate standard during the “final period” of the permit.
U.S. Steel Keetac plant from the air (aerial map by Fond du Lac Band)
  • The Board stated that in future permitting sulfate pollution will be regulated under the wild rice sulfate standard of 10 mg/L, and that Keetac was no exception.
  • The Board required that Keetac’s compliance with the sulfate standard in a “final” period be achieved one year earlier than proposed by MPCA staff.
  • The Board said that U.S. Steel would be required to return every year to the Board and publicly report their progress on reducing sulfate pollution to justify the continuation of the permit.
The new water permits for the Keetac Mine and Tailings Basin expansion were first mining permits in Minnesota to require compliance with Minnesota’s 10 mg/L limit on sulfate in wild rice waters.

Minnesota Legislature Nullifies Permits

The proposed Keetac permits came with a catch. No wild rice sulfate limits would become effective until the “final” period was reached. For non-tailings basin discharges, that final period would arrive seven years later, on August 17, 2018, and for tailings basin discharges the final period would start eight years later on August 17, 2019. And, rather than requiring explicit steps to achieve compliance at a future date, until these future dates Keetac permits merely required reports, rather than design or construction of a treatment plant or other infrastructure.

Lobbyists for mining interests were overheard in the hallways of the Minnesota Legislature saying that by the time the Keetac permits required compliance the wild rice standard would be changed. This was not an idle boast.

Although legislation to repeal the wild rice sulfate standard as a whole was not successful, U.S. Steel lobbyists achieved their goal of nullifying the Keetac permit requirements.

In 2016, the Minnesota Legislature passed a session law stating that “final sulfate limits” were “no longer valid” for “any permit issued after January 1, 2010, and before May 1, 2016, that contains final sulfate effluent limits resulting from implementation of the wild rice water quality standard.” This bill was tailor-made for and applied only to the Keetac permits. As a result of this session law, today U.S. Steel has no requirements related to sulfate at the Keetac mine other than to keep monitoring its pollution.

Result: As of summer 2020, no MPCA water pollution permits impose any limits on sulfate from the Keetac mine or tailings basin to comply with Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard.