Minntac Tailings Basin
November 30, 2018, despite the opposition by WaterLegacy and our allies, MPCA issued a final permit that did not set water quality-based limits on Minntac tailings basin direct pollution of wetlands and streams and did not control Minntac discharge of pollution through groundwater. Water quality, fish, and wild rice were not protected.
The Minntac tailings basin water pollution permit expired in 1992, and it took the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) more than a quarter of a century to reissue a new permit in 2018. Under pressure from lawsuits, MPCA finally proposed draft water pollution permits for the Minntac tailings basin in 2014 and 2016. MPCA’s draft permits were inadequate to protect water quality or wild rice, so WaterLegacy and our allies submitted detailed and highly critical comments. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also submitted a comment stating that MPCA’s proposed draft Minntac permit would violate the Clean Water Act.
WaterLegacy and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior filed appeals from the MPCA’s issuance of the Minntac water pollution permit on the last day of 2018. WaterLegacy’s appeal challenged: 1) MPCA’s failure to set pollution limits on direct discharge from the Minntac tailings basin; and 2) MPCA’s failure to control discharge from tailings basin seepage through groundwater affecting downstream waters and wild rice.
In addition to the failed permitting process for the Minntac tailings basin, it was recently revealed that from 2017 to 2019 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was pursuing a federal enforcement action against U.S. Steel for Minntac tailings basin sulfate pollution affecting wild rice. But, rather than proceeding on its own to enforce the Clean Water Act, which could have meant a multi-million dollar fine for U.S. Steel as well as strict cleanup requirements, the Trump EPA asked MPCA to approve the enforcement action. MPCA opposed enforcement. EPA failed to act, and enforcement is stalled. E & E News investigated and reported on this classic Minnesota mining fiasco.
What’s the current status of the Minntac permit appeal?
However, the Court affirmed MPCA’s conclusion that any pollution that traveled through groundwater before polluting wetlands, rivers, and lakes was not covered by the Clean Water Act. The MPCA could avoid control of pollution seeping from the Minntac tailings basin through groundwater.
Minnesota Supreme Court Review
Helpful U.S. Supreme Court Decision
While the Minntac appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a related Clean Water Act case coming out of Maui, Hawaii. In County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, the Supreme Court ruled that a position like that taken by MPCA for the Minntac permit – that no pollution through groundwater could ever be controlled by the Clean Water Act – created an unacceptable loophole. The Maui case held that discharge through groundwater was the “functional equivalent” of direct discharge, and it must be regulated.
Minntac Tailings Basin Permit History
MPCA circulates another draft Minntac water pollution permit. The permit does not require compliance with Minnesota’s 10 mg/L sulfate standard. WaterLegacy’s Advocacy Director states in the Timberjay that MPCA’s draft Minntac permit “stands the Clean Water Act on its head and lets the polluter set the standard.”
Minntac Mine Expansion without Environmental Review
Many Minnesotans believe that mine expansions go through a rigorous environmental review process. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Aerial photo of huge expansion of Minntac mine, tailings basin and processing facility (documents filed by U.S. Steel in 2012)
The Minntac mine has been continually and incrementally expanded for decades without ever going through an environmental impact statement (EIS) study of harm to the environment or alternatives to minimize that harm. The most recent Minntac expansion was in 2012. The expansion proposed impacts to 483 acres, including 67 acres of wetlands and excavation of nearly 2 billion tons of ore, waste rock, and overburden (natural rock and soil above the ore body). WaterLegacy and our allies called for an EIS and an investigation of water quality issues and alternatives.
The result? No EIS was ordered by either the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.