Controlling Mining Pollution with Stronger Permits & Enforcement

Mining company representatives and state officials have insisted that sulfide mining can be done safely in Minnesota due to the toughness of state standards for sulfates, toxic mercury and other pollutants. The US Environmental Pollution Agency (EPA) delegates the authority to regulate pollution to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). To keep this authority, the MPCA must comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which requires enforcement to prevent violation of water quality standards.

But, what if the MPCA fails to enforce mercury and water quality standards for mining projects? What protection will Minnesota anglers, hunters, residents and natural resources have against sulfide mining?

The more WaterLegacy looks into this issue, the more concerned we are that the MPCA is not enforcing mercury, sulfate and other water quality standards for ferrous (iron and taconite) and peat mining projects. Before sulfide mining can even be considered, Minnesota has to get its house in order to regulated and control mining pollution.

Current Developments

Minntac Water Pollution:  U.S. Steel’s Minntac Tailings Basin has violated State water quality standards since at least 1987. WaterLegacy has opposed variances from standards for the Minntac Tailings Basin, submitted comments on draft permits that would fail to control mining pollution and has advocated to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to urge that Minnesota’s authority to regulate water pollution under the Clean Water Act be withdrawn if the MPCA fails to control mining pollution.

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 EPA. The EPA settled with plaintiffs and reversed the Mesabi Nugget variance in July 2014. The plant was idled and there has been no announcement of its reopening.

Background – Other Minnesota Mine Permits affecting Clean Water

WaterLegacy has also submitted detailed comments on the following mining projects:

Keetac Water Pollution: Permits were issued for U.S. Steel’s Keetac mine site and tailings basin site delaying implementation of sulfate pollution limits enacted to protect natural wild rice for another 8 or 9 years. However, the Keetac permit was the first permit in decades to limit sulfate pollution based on application of the 10 milligrams per liter limit on sulfate pollution in wild rice waters. Legislation to block the wild rice sulfate standard has interfered with implementation of this requirement.

Aitkin Agri-Peat Mercury Pollution: The permit proposed for this project 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 from is “backsliding” prohibited under the Clean Water Act. This resulted in an in-depth investigation by the U.S. EPA, putting the permit on hold. The permit was eventually issued, with requirements to limit mercury discharge.

Dunka Mine Water Pollution: WaterLegacy advisors and citizen scientists highlighted weaknesses in existing Dunka Mine permits and enforcement, allowing toxic pollutants from leaking waste rock stockpiles to harm the aquatic ecosystem and impair wild rice just a short distance upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The company currently responsible for the Dunka Mine, Cliffs Erie LLC, has entered into a “consent decree” agreement with the MPCA to change violations of water pollution standards.