Mesabi Nugget Water Pollution

Current Developments

WaterLegacy, et al. Win Reversal of EPA’s Mesabi Nugget Variance Approval

NEWS RELEASE: SAINT PAUL, MN, March 10, 2014 – WaterLegacy, along with the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, have succeeded in resolving their landmark Clean Water Act lawsuit against the EPA in federal court, WaterLegacy et al. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, et al.

The environmental groups and the Bands sued the EPA last June, asking the Court to overturn and remand a decision by the EPA that approved a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Variance for Mesabi Nugget’s Hoyt Lakes iron nugget processing plant. This Variance allowed Mesabi Nugget to discharge four pollutants in excess of Minnesota’s state rules. WaterLegacy asserted that these pollutants would be toxic to aquatic life as well as harmful to wild rice.  Today’s voluntary motion by the EPA to vacate and remand its own Variance approval decision sets the stage to require Mesabi Nugget to comply with Minnesota pollution standards.

States Paula Maccabee, Counsel and Advocacy Director for WaterLegacy,  “WaterLegacy is very pleased that the EPA has stepped forward to recognize that approval of the Variance was a mistake. We hope to be able to work with the EPA to ensure that mining facilities throughout the Lake Superior Basin follow Minnesota’s legal rules that protect clean water, wild rice, and fish.”

Continues Maccabee, “This case provides an important test. Minnesota may have stringent environmental rules, but they only work if they are enforced. The best way to create incentives for companies to invest in reverse osmosis and other pollution control treatment is to require that they comply with the law.”

Based on an agreement with WaterLegacy, the Bands, and MCEA, the EPA’s unopposed motion asks the Court to vacate the EPA’s approval of the Mesabi Nugget variance and states that, on remand, the EPA will disapprove the Variance. Once the Court grants the motion, the parties will stipulate to dismiss the case. After the Variance is disapproved, it is unknown whether Mesabi Nugget will take steps to comply with pollution limits or ask for a new Variance.

On July 2, 2014, the EPA denied the Mesabi Nugget variance.

READ the EPA’s July 2, 2014 Notice to the Court of action disapproving the Mesabi Nugget variance

The Mesabi Nugget plant was idled and there has been no announcement of its reopening. The shuttered Mesabi Nugget plant paid an air pollution fine in 2017.

Background on Mesabi Nugget Variance

Federal Lawsuit over Mesabi Nugget Variance (June 3, 2013)

On June 3, 2013, WaterLegacy filed suit in Minnesota Federal District Court asking the Court to overturn as “arbitrary and capricious” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision to allow the Mesabi Nugget iron plant a “variance” from complying with water quality standards. Similar lawsuits were filed by the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage Bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

The EPA variance would allow Mesabi Nugget to violate water quality standards for total dissolved salts, bicarbonates, hardness and ionic conductivity, although these pollutants can harm the aquatic food chain and natural stands of wild rice. Both Mesabi Nugget and regulating agencies agree that water pollution treatment is feasible and commercially available to provide compliance with water quality standards.

In explaining the litigation to news reporters, WaterLegacy explained, “What we are really saying is that Minnesota water quality standards apply to everyone, including the mining industry, and that the standards should be applied and enforced rather than making exceptions for the convenience of the industry.” Read more about the case on Minnesota Public Radio’s web site.

READ WaterLegacy’s Complaint

State Review and Approval of Mesabi Nugget Variance (2012)

In comments filed on February 18, 2012, WaterLegacy opposed the MPCA’s proposed 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 reverse osmosis water pollution treatment be required and that impacts of the chemical cycle of sulfates on wild rice be studied to protect downstream stands of natural wild rice. The initial permit would have allowed an indefinite water quality violation. In response to comments, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) proposed an additional 9-year variance (in addition to the 7-year variance since Mesabi Nugget’s prior permit application).

The standards that Mesabi Nugget would be allowed to violate were enacted almost 40 years ago and scientific evidence shows that the discharge is already toxic to aquatic species. The MPCA alleged that water pollution treatment was not feasible, although reverse osmosis would enable Mesabi Nugget to meet pollution standards.

WaterLegacy supplemented comments to the MPCA on October 23, 2012. Despite concerns of diverse groups and tribal natural resources staff, the MPCA Citizens’ Board approved the Mesabi Nugget variance and permit pending EPA review and approval of the variance.

READ WaterLegacy’s comment to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency of February 18, 2012

READ WaterLegacy’s Supplemental Comment to the MPCA of October 23, 2012

Federal Review of the Mesabi Nugget Variance (2012)

The EPA’s February 29, 2012 comment letter raised concerns about the Mesabi Nugget permit and variance, but the EPA eventually approved the proposed variance on December 27, 2012.

READ EPA’s comment on the proposed Mesabi Nugget variance, February 29, 2012