Mesabi Nugget Water Pollution

Mesabi Nugget was Minnesota’s first plant to turn iron ore concentrate recovered from old mine sites into iron nuggets. These nuggets are used to enhance scrap metal in electric art “mini-mill” steel mills. The Mesabi Nugget plant opened in 2009 and closed in January 2015 due to market factors. Even during times of upswing in the iron ore industry, Mesabi Nugget has remained shuttered.

The Mesabi Nugget plant had problems complying with air emissions standards. In addition, in 2012, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) proposed to grant a variance that would allow Mesabi Nugget to violate water quality standards for four pollutants: total dissolved salts, bicarbonates, hardness and ionic conductivity. These pollutants can harm the aquatic food chain and natural stands of wild rice.

Under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must approve any state variance from pollution control standards. The EPA approved the Mesabi Nugget variance.

The Mesabi Nugget operation. Site Selection Magazine Photo.
WaterLegacy, other environmental groups, and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa opposed the Mesabi Nugget variance during the MPCA permitting process and in the EPA’s administrative process. When these efforts were unsuccessful, WaterLegacy and our allies filed lawsuits in the United States District Court for Minnesota arguing that EPA had violated the Clean Water Act in approving the Mesabi Nugget variance.

As a result of litigation by WaterLegacy and our allies in federal district court, the EPA reversed its decision to approve the Mesabi Nugget variance.

Mesabi Nugget Variance & Litigation Timeline

Jan. 30, 2012

MPCA proposed to issue an NPDES/SDS water pollution permit for the Mesabi Nugget plant, along with a variance that would permit the iron nugget facility to violate water quality standards for bicarbonates, hardness, total dissolved solids, and specific conductance and to discharge chemicals that are toxic to the aquatic system.

Feb. 2012

WaterLegacy submitted comments objecting to the variance and requesting both that reverse osmosis water quality treatment be required for the Mesabi Nugget plant and that impact of sulfate pollution on downstream wild rice be studied. EPA also submitted a comment letter raising concerns about the Mesabi Nugget permit and variance.

Oct. 23, 2012

WaterLegacy testified at the MPCA Citizens’ Board opposing the Mesabi Nugget variance and submitted written comments with this testimony.

Oct. 26, 2012

MPCA approved the Mesabi Nugget variance. 

Dec. 27, 2012

EPA approved the Mesabi Nugget variance.

Jan. 23, 2013

WaterLegacy appealed EPA’s decision approving the Mesabi Nugget variance to the EPA Environmental Appeals Board.

Mar. 19, 2013

The EPA Environmental Appeals Board concluded it lacked jurisdiction to review EPA’s approval of a variance, leaving no recourse but to file a lawsuit.

June 3, 2013

WaterLegacy filed a complaint in federal district court arguing that EPA’s approval of the Mesabi Nugget variance violated the Clean Water Act.

Mar. 10, 2014

EPA voluntarily asked to vacate and remand its own variance, effectively sending its own decision back to the drawing board.

June 2, 2014

The Minnesota federal court ordered the variance remanded back to the EPA.

July 2, 2014

EPA made a new final decision and disapproved the Mesabi Nugget variance.

May 2016

WaterLegacy reached a settlement whereby EPA paid WaterLegacy’s attorneys’ fees and costs in pursing the Mesabi Nugget lawsuit in federal court.