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Feds will examine state pollution permits for mines

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to look at allegations that Minnesota pollution regulators are slipping in their watchdog role of the state's mining industry.

The EPA has informed the environmental group Water Legacy that it will look at whether water quality permits issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are adequately following federal Clean Water Act requirements.

Paula Maccabee, attorney for Water Legacy, filed the petition in July. In September the EPA said it would include the review as part of its usual compliance checks of state agencies.

But the EPA further informed Maccabee in recent weeks that a more specific investigation would move forward on Clean Water Act compliance related to discharge permits.

Water Legacy has claimed that many of the discharge permits for existing mining operations are either out of date or are allowing the operations to pollute beyond federal standards. They say that dereliction of duty over taconite mining means the state isn't likely to properly enforce proposed permits for copper mine discharges.

"Until the PCA can control pollution from far less toxic taconite mining, it's a very unreasonable risk to move forward to sulfide (copper) mining," Maccabee told the News Tribune on Tuesday. "We think it is possible to conduct taconite iron ore mining in a way that complies with the Clean Water Act. It's just that Minnesota isn't doing that ... they aren't issuing permits or updating permits in a timely fashion. And they aren't issuing permits that are free from political influence."

The EPA said the review will occur in 2016.

According to the letter from the Region 5 headquarters of the agency, EPA staff will review the PCA's "permitting records relating to the timely reissuance of permits. This review will consist of file reviews at State Headquarters and the Duluth Regional Office, interviews with state staff and may include written information requests to the state. EPA will specifically review files for expired and/or administratively continued NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permits. Because it will be infeasible to review every permit MPCA issues, and because the petitioner is specifically focused on mining-related permits, EPA will conduct a review of at least each mining-related permit."

The letter also noted that "because EPA cannot consider the withdrawal of only a portion of a state's authorized program, EPA may include in its review selected nonmining permits as well."

In response to Water Legacy's allegations that the PCA has been hamstrung from enforcing federal standards because of action by the state Legislature, EPA officials say they will investigate "the extent to which MPCA's implementation of the NPDES permit program has been limited by legislation which prevents the agency from incorporating effluent limitations to address the sulfate water quality criterion in permits" as well as PCA's capability to implement the federal permit program "in light of limiting legislation" by state lawmakers.

PCA spokesman Dave Verhasselt said the agency considers the EPA letter and pending review “as a procedural status report—not actual news’’ and said agency officials won’t be available for interviews on the issue. He offered a July quote from Rebecca Flood, PCA assistant commissioner.

“Water Legacy has made a number of assertions in their petition. Our work is regularly under review and critique by the EPA. They will determine the credibility of these assertions and if they need exploration we will fully participate in that discussion,’’ Flood said. “Until EPA makes that determination, we will say that we are confident in our permitting and regulatory work to protect air, water, land and human health in Minnesota.”

Maccabee said that if the allegations are determined to be true, the federal agency could step in and supercede the PCA as regulators of Clean Water Act discharge permits issued in Minnesota, especially for mines.
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