MPCA — the state’s leading environmental protection agency — fails to act against mining pollution

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is again in the news for turning a blind eye to ongoing water pollution leaving U.S. Steel’s Minntac Mine in northern Minnesota, according to a report in E&E News. Minntac’s violations “would likely have meant a multimillion-dollar fine for U.S. Steel Corp. … and strict requirements for a cleanup,” the report said.

The EPA is declining such penalties because of MPCA indifference. E&E writes:

Records obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act indicate Minnesota regulators opposed EPA’s proposed enforcement. …

Leaders of a tribe downstream from Minntac, the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, are angry that the case has gone dark. They’ve tried for decades to fend off pollution to preserve wild rice, a culturally significant staple food that grows in the region’s waters.

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How will the MPCA handle Enbridge Line 3’s water quality certificate? Minntac’s example is alarming

Part IV and last in 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.

Tribes, environmental groups, and concerned citizens won a victory recently, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) agreed to allow challenges to its proposed approval of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline.

To proceed with Line 3, Enbridge needs the MPCA to issue the project a water quality certificate. The agency had tentatively given the OK.

Public pressure got the MPCA to reconsider, and it ordered a contested case hearing. Administrative Law Judge James LaFave will handle the proceedings, expected later this summer. The hearings will allow intervenors — White Earth Nation, Red Lake Nation, Honor the Earth, Sierra Club and Friends of the Headwaters — to challenge the facts the MPCA used to reach its decision.

This is a significant win. The MPCA doesn’t seem inclined to use its regulatory authority to protect water quality. One troubling example is the MPCA’s failure in 2014 to use the water quality certificate process to force U.S. Steel to address ongoing pollution problems at its Minntac taconite mine in northern Minnesota.

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State Legislature has passed laws to undermine the MPCA’s ability to enforce water and wild rice protections

Part III 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.

Minntac viewed from Mountain Iron

Making laws can be messy. We want to believe that the end result is democratic and fair.

In reality, we know that some groups have stronger political connections and more money, and that can influence outcomes. We need to know that we have strong political institutions that can provide balance, making sure sound science is followed, that Native Nations and other communities with less power get heard, and the public interest is best served.

The state of Minnesota in general – and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in particular – have failed to strike that balance when it comes to regulating U.S. Steel’s Minntac taconite mine, and other mining operations, and the water pollution they generate.

The MPCA has much to answer for regarding its ineffectiveness in regulating Minntac’s mine wastewater, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the legislature and pro-mining lobbying interests have undermined the agency’s ability to take a tough stand in recent years. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could require the MPCA to enforce tougher water quality standards on pollution discharged from U.S. Steel’s Minntac mine

Part I in a series which explores 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.

Wild rice is a sacred food to the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples, holding spiritual and cultural value. For some Anishinaabe in northern Minnesota, it’s also source of income. It’s Minnesota’s state grain and important to the state’s identity.

It’s also very sensitive to water pollution, notably sulfates.

Minnesotans care about clean water. In 1967, the Minnesota Legislature created the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), giving it a “unique challenge and a demanding responsibility: to protect the air, waters and land of our great state.”

In 1973, Minnesota created a rule limiting sulfate pollution in wild rice waters, known as the Wild Rice Rule. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the rule under the federal Clean Water Act.

The problem is, the MPCA has rarely enforced the Wild Rice Rule. The agency first applied it in 1975, regarding wastewater discharge from Minnesota Power’s Clay Boswell coal-fired power plant, court records say. The agency didn’t apply the rule again until 2010, 35 years later. Continue reading

An Open Letter to Gov. Walz on Line 3, its public purpose, its costs and benefits, and needed action

Dear Gov. Walz:

Your voice and leadership matter in the debate over the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline.

You have given Minnesotans the impression that you have no authority to intervene. While you can’t snap your fingers and stop the project, you have more power than you’re letting on. You oversee agencies charged with making sure Enbridge meets all state environmental requirements in the pipeline’s construction and operation. You have the bully pulpit to let citizens know your candid views.

Last year, you told Minnesotans that Line 3 needed not just a building permit, but a “social permit.” We need to hear from you the specific conditions Line 3 must meet to secure such a “social permit.” At a minimum, it should include transparency. So far, the Line 3’s public record is both voluminous and technical, often leading to more confusion than clarity. The state needs to make a clear statement, in lay terms that people can understand, about the project’s public purpose and its costs and benefits. We have yet to get such a statement. Citizens deserve it.

I offer the following summary of Line 3’s public purpose, its costs and benefits, and critiques of the process. I also include specific actions you could take that would move this state in a good direction.

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Regular citizens left in the dark about Line 3’s threats to wild rice

Leech Lake members harvest wild rice on Mud Lake. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Wild rice is sacred food to Anishinaabe people and Minnesota’s state grain, but the state has no uniform definition of “wild rice waters.”

This creates problems when evaluating the threat to “wild rice waters” from projects such as Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline.

The proposed Line 3 route would cross 340 miles of northern Minnesota — right through the heart of wild rice country — crossing more than 200 water bodies and 75 miles of wetlands. In order to get state approvals, Enbridge needs to show it can build the pipeline through all that water and mitigate the damage to wild rice and other sensitive ecosystems.

Understanding Line 3’s threat to wild rice remains an open and troubling question. Enbridge just submitted a new application to the state for Line 3’s water crossing permit (technically called a Section 401 permit). One might think that Enbridge would want to reassure the public that wild rice would be protected under its plan. Instead, Enbridge submitted highly technical reports that make it nearly impossible for the average citizen to understand this critically important issue.

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Events: A film honoring Warrior Women, an art exhibit honoring George Morrison, Stop Line 3 events and more!

Upcoming Events:

  • Minnesota Court of Appeals to hear oral arguments on case to protect wild rice from mining pollution, Tuesday, Sept. 10
  • Opening reception for “Changing Horizons,” an art exhibit honoring Geroge Morrison, Sept. 12
  • Protecting our Sacred Water: A Gathering at the Headwaters, Sept. 21-22
  • Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3 in Duluth Sept. 28
  • Augburg Native Film Screening: Warrior Women, Saturday, Oct. 5
  • Panel discussion on Indigenous Land Acknowledgement, Oct. 14
  • Registration now open for the 2019 Overcoming Racism Conference, Nov. 15-16

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Anishinaabe ‘Rights of Manoomin’ Laws Create Legal Basis to Protect Sacred Wild Rice

‘This would be the first law to recognize the legal rights of a plant species

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the 1855 Treaty Authority are taking action to address the growing threats to native wild rice, such as potential crude oil pipeline spills or the spread of genetically modified wild rice. They are establishing new laws and claiming treaty rights to protect their culture and sacred food.

The 1855 Treaty Alliance was established to protect the treaty rights of Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, White Earth, East Lake and Sandy Lake bands. The Alliance covers those lands the Anishinaabe ceded as part of their 1855 Treaty with the United States. (Among those treaty rights, bands claim the right to hunt, fish and gather — including harvesting wild rice — on ceded lands.)

According to a media statement from the 1855 Treaty Alliance:

Recently the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the 1855 Treaty Alliance adopted Rights of Manoomn for on and off reservation protection of wild rice and the clean, fresh water resources and habitats in which it thrives. The Rights of Manoomin were adopted because “it has become necessary to provide a legal basis to protect wild rice and fresh water resources as part of our primary treaty foods for future generations” …

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Climate Change Threatens Wild Rice and Other News and Events

Forwarding a couple of recent stories and upcoming events:

  • Climate change threatens wild rice
  • Man shot by St. Paul police identified as White Earth member, vigil held
  • Decade of Water Summit Wednesday-Thursday
  • Third Annual National Native American Ten Minute Play Festival, Wednesday to Sunday

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