The MPCA’s stunning ineffectiveness in protecting state waters from mining interests: A timeline of inaction

Part II of a series exploring how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has failed for decades to enforce water quality standards against U.S. Steel and its Minntac mine in northern Minnesota.

Looking north from Mt. Iron at Minntac.

Water is central to Minnesota’s identity – the Land of 10,000 Lakes. We pride ourselves in clean water and a clean environment, and preserving it for future generations.

We want to believe that rules and laws apply equally. Just because someone has more money or more political clout doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to them.

Yet for decades, U.S. Steel’s Minntac mining operation has violated state water quality rules, notably the “Wild Rice Rule” that limits sulfate pollution to protect wild rice. When wild rice dies, the harm falls hardest on the Ojibwe people for whom it’s a sacred food.

Sandy and Little Sandy lakes, just downstream from Minntac, once had 200 acres of wild rice which are now gone.

It’s the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA’s) job to “to protect and improve the environment and human health.” Yet taking the Minntac taconite mine as a case study, the agency has failed to do its job.

Map of Minntac mine and its tailings basin.

The MPCA declined to comment for this story because its involved in litigation over Minntac’s wastewater discharge permit.

In a media release regarding the litigation, the MPCA said it “is dedicated to protecting Minnesota’s most valuable resource — its water. The MPCA will continue engaging with stakeholders to ensure the state’s groundwater and surface water are protected.”

Such PR statements need to be challenged. The MPCA saying it’s dedicated to protecting water doesn’t make it so. The record speaks for itself.

Over the years, the MPCA has reached several agreements with U.S. Steel. The company has agreed to monitor Minntac’s sulfate problem, study the problem, and suggest possible solutions.

The problem still exists.

During the 33 years the MPCA has regulated Minntac’s wastewater discharge, it’s issued only four fines. Collectively they total under $150,000. That’s insufficient to compel U.S. Steel to change behavior, let alone compensate for the environmental damage.

A 2019 editorial by the Ely-based Timberjay observed: “U.S. Steel is, increasingly, regulating the state’s Pollution Control Agency rather than the other way around.”

What follows is a timeline of MPCA’s regulatory failures, compiled from government documents, news sources, and MPCA responses to data requests.

1967-1987

Aerial view of Minntac/ (Source: MPCA)

Mountain Iron was the site of Minnesota’s first major iron mine on what would become the Iron Range. When the high-grade iron ore was depleted, mining companies turned to taconite, a rock with low-grade iron content.

U.S Steel began operating the Minntac taconite mine near Mountain Iron around 1967, the same year the Minnesota State Legislature created the MPCA. Six years later, in 1973, the state created the Wild Rice Rule.

Extracting iron from taconite is a water intensive process. (See Part I.) Wastewater gets pumped into Minntac’s tailings basin, which covers 13.6-square miles. It’s the largest such basin in Minnesota and the one with the highest sulfate concentration. It was built on the Laurentian Divide on the headwaters of the Dark and Sand rivers. The basin is enclosed to the south by high bedrock; a 9.1-mile dam encloses the rest.

Historically, wastewater has seeped out at low spots along the base of the dam, going directly into the Dark River and Sand River watersheds. Belatedly, that’s being corrected.

Wastewater also enters the groundwater through the bottom of Minntac’s unlined basin. The shallow aquifer below the basin is only 10 to 55 feet thick, mostly porous sand and gravel and peat sitting on top of bedrock. Approximately 2.5 million gallons a day of sulfate-contaminated water enters this aquifer through what regulators call “deep seepage.” Some of that water makes its way back into nearby streams and lakes.

Twenty years after the mine opened, the MPCA began regulating Minntac’s wastewater discharge.

1987-1999:  An ineffective start

Sulfate concentration (red line) in Minntac’s tailings basin, 1992-2006. (Source MPCA)

The MPCA lost leverage with U.S. Steel at the outset. The agency issued Minntac’s first water discharge permit in 1987, and it lacked teeth.

It’s not clear why the MPCA chose not to enforce the state’s Wild Rice Rule, but it didn’t.

The MPCA’s initial permit authorized U.S. Steel to discharge polluted water from the mine’s tailings basin into the Dark and Sand rivers and into the groundwater. The MPCA worried about sulfate pollution at the time. Yet the permit “required only monitoring and study requirements,” court records say.

The MPCA was supposed renew or deny U.S. Steel’s water discharge permit every five years, starting in 1992. The MPCA ended up extending U.S. Steel’s “expired permit” for more than a quarter century, until 2018.

During the 1990s, the MPCA doesn’t appear to have pushed U.S. Steel to address the sulfate problem. Most of the regulatory discussion focused on U.S. Steel’s proposal to siphon wastewater from the basin and pump it into the nearby watersheds, MPCA documents say.

While that siphon project didn’t get built, the sulfate problem went unaddressed. In 1992, Minntac’s basin water had a sulfate concentration of approximately 350 mg/L. By 1999, it had doubled to roughly 700 mg/L. These are far in excess of the 10 mg/L standard set by the Wild Rice Rule and the groundwater pollution standard of 250 mg/L.

2000-2008:  Initial proposals and ongoing problems

The MPCA began pushing back on water quality problems in 2000, issuing a letter of warning to U.S. Steel expressing “concern about the existing high sulfate concentrations in the drainage from the Minntac tailings basin.”

In late 2001, the MPCA and U.S. Steel reached an agreement requiring the company to do a feasibility study on 12 different technologies to meet sulfate reduction goals. U.S. Steel eventually proposed installing a “sulfate-reducing, packed-bed bioreactor.”

A 2003 agreement required U.S. Steel to do a feasibility study on this new technology. The agreement gave U.S. Steel a generous timeline, ridiculously low targets, and an easy out.

U.S. Steel would have to reduce sulfate levels to 646 mg/L for waters seeping out on the dam’s west side, and 486 mg/L on the east side. (Again, well above state water quality standards.) The MPCA gave U.S. Steel eight years to meet those lax goals, until December, 2011.

Finally, the agreement asked U.S. Steel to assess if it could achieve these low targets “without undue financial hardship,” suggesting that financial hardship was a legitimate reason to ignore state rules and continuing to pollute the environment.

Nothing in the records reviewed suggests that the “sulfate-reducing, packed-bed bioreactor” was feasible or ever installed. U.S. Steel wasn’t fined for delays in addressing the sulfate problem.

Minntac also had ongoing problems with its “scrubbersystem. Scrubbers are used to reduce air pollution from industrial processes. Some systems, like Minntac’s, use water as part of the process to capture pollutants in exhaust gases. In Minntac’s case, the scrubber system’s polluted water then gets returned to the tailings basin.

Minntac’s wastewater discharge permit required that this scrubber system not increase the basin’s sulfate levels. The scrubber system failed to meet that requirement every year from 2006-2010, MPCA records show. It resulted in the addition of more than 140 tons of excess “sulfate mass” in the basin over that five year period.

In 2008, the MPCA fined U.S. Steel $119,544, primarily for its scrubber problems, the largest penalty issued to date.

Eight years after the MPCA issued its letter of warning to U.S. Steel, Minntac’s sulfate problem was the same or worse.

2009-2019: More promises, little progress

Sign in Mountain Iron

There is one egregious example of U.S. Steel’s promise — and failure — to fix its sulfate pollution problem.

In March 2009, U.S. Steel submitted an application to the MPCA to build a water treatment system it said would significantly lower the Minntac basin’s sulfate concentration. U.S. Steel requested the MPCA delay action on its application while it investigated refinements.

U.S. Steel returned with a completely different proposal. It said it would replace its “wet emissions scrubbers” with “dry controls.” Again, the company said the dry controls would significantly reduce the basin’s sulfate pollution, and committed to the plan as part of a 2011 agreement.

The agreement required U.S. Steel to apply for a permit install the dry controls within two months and start construction within three months of receiving the permit. It set other deadlines, data collection requirements, evaluation requirements, and more.

On Jan. 20, 2015 – three-and-a-half years after the agreement was signed – the MPCA wrote U.S. Steel demanding that the company comply with the 2011 agreement and install the dry controls system. U.S. Steel notified the MPCA it didn’t intend to pursue the dry control system anymore, and instead sought to renegotiate the 2011 agreement.

The 2011 agreement set various penalties if U.S. Steel failed to meet the terms of the agreement. It doesn’t appear the MPCA fined U.S. Steel for failing to move this project forward.

As recently as 2017, the MPCA asked the Second District Court to force U.S. Steel to comply with its 2011 agreement, according to an article in the Timberjay. The article summarized MPCA’s court filing, saying:

The PCA response … portrays a mining company that has engaged in a pattern of delay and apparent bad faith over decades as it has tried to forestall cleanup of both groundwater and surface water pollution from its Minntac tailings basin … as well as prevent the PCA from issuing a new and stricter permit for the facility.

U.S. Steel did a couple of promised upgrades, if not always promptly. In 2010, U.S. Steel built a system to collect and return wastewater seeping at the base of the dam’s east side. Instead of going into the Sand River, this water now is returned to the basin. It collects roughly 780,000 gallons of polluted water a day.

In the 2011 agreement, U.S. Steel committed to move forward on a similar collection-and-return system for the dam’s west side. Nine years later, construction is underway and completion is expected this summer, the MPCA said.

(Note: While collection-and-return systems stop surface water pollution runoff, they do nothing to lower the basin water’s sulfate concentrations, and polluted water still escapes into the groundwater through the bottom of the basin.)

The MPCA’s ineffectiveness got federal regulators’ attention. According to a 2015 Star Tribune article:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is pressuring the state to take a tougher stance on a massive taconite waste pit that for decades has been leaking pollutants into the nearly pristine watershed that holds Lake Vermilion and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

In a sharply worded letter last month, the EPA suggested that the state’s proposed plan for the Minntac tailings basin is not in line with the Clean Water Act and other federal laws because it has no clear deadlines to fix the problems.

Wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe people. Sulfate pollution can kill the plants. (Photo: Leslie Seaton)

Complicating matters, the 2015 Minnesota Legislature intervened on behalf of mining interests, passing a law that made it difficult if not to impossible for the MPCA to enforce the Wild Rice Rule. (More on this in Part III.)

In the fall of 2015, the EPA said there were 48 Minnesota mining operations with expired water discharge permits. It sought a commitment from MPCA to  designate which waters qualified as wild rice waters and ways to assess their water quality.

In 2016, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy sued the MPCA for failing to regulate Minntac’s water pollution. Shortly thereafter, the MPCA – for the first time – proposed deadlines for U.S. Steel to meet water quality rules, according to a Star Tribune article at the time.

A 2016 MPCA fact sheet on Minntac’s permit said that even though U.S. Steel had agreed several times to study and address the sulfate problem, water quality violations are found “in a broad area surrounding the basin.”

The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission issued a report in 2018 focusing on the mine’s Dark River watershed. It found research on water quality problems on the basin’s east side, but relatively little on the west, or Dark River side. That’s a problem, indicating that regulators had not studied downstream impacts.

Among the report’s findings:

Sulfate was much greater than the 10 mg/l limit that applies in wild rice waters such as Dark Lake, which the sulfate-laden Dark River flows through. In addition, August 2015 sampling documented sulfate concentrations exceeding the state criterion of 250 mg/l in the trout stream reach of the Dark River.

Previous public information had not documented the presence of constituents such as selenium, phosphorus, or uranium in the surface waters downstream from the Minntac tailings, or documented the downstream trend in contamination. We … determined that the influence of tailings on water quality appeared to extend for 95 km downstream of the tailings.

Also in 2018, after a 26-year delay, the MPCA approved MinnTac’s new wastewater discharge permit. Its order included the following non sequitor:

U.S. Steel has committed several times to lower concentrations of pollutants in basin water and proposed various methods to do so.

U.S. Steel has failed to implement any of the methods it has proposed or committed to undertake. Under the current circumstances, the MPCA concludes that pollutant concentrations in the Tailings Basin will continue to increase.

The [water discharge] permit for the facility must be reissued to ensure that continued operation of the facility will protect surrounding waters.

The MPCA also justified its decision, citing a state rule that required it to reissue the permit if it determines that U.S. Steel will “achieve compliance with all applicable state and federal pollution control statutes and rules …”

That’s a head scratcher. There’s little evidence in the record to support that conclusion.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the environmental group WaterLegacy both appealed the permit, arguing it was too lax. U.S. Steel appealed the permit for being too strict. The case is before the Minnesota Supreme Court. (See Part 1.)

Regardless of what happens, the MPCA has a systemic problem. It’s the state’s leading environmental protection agency and it’s been unable to do its job regulating Minntac.

Residents desperately need the MPCA to be effective. When it comes to wild rice waters, Native Nations in particular need the MPCA to be effective.

There could be many reasons for the MPCA’s ineffectiveness: lack of leadership, corporate foot dragging, political calculations, legislative interference, litigation, an inadequate budget, and/or a general lack of urgency. The MPCA owes it to the public to provide sunlight on enforcement roadblocks so they can be understood and fixed.

Another option is to have the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Auditor take a hard look at the MPCA to identify ways it can better meet its mission.

Next up: Part III: Political pressure brought to bear to undermine the MPCA’s ability to enforcement strict water quality standards.

Previous: Part 1: Minnesota’s lead environmental protection agency has failed to protect our water and wild rice: A Minntac Case Study

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