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Lawsuit wants Minntac discharge regulated

A sign near the entrance to Minntac. (2015 file / News Tribune)

Environmental groups on Wednesday filed suit in state district court against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency saying the state has failed to enforce water pollution limits on U.S. Steel’s Minntac taconite plant in Mountain Iron.

The groups say the PCA has failed to uphold limits for known pollutants leaking from the Minntac tailings basin, noting the taconite operation’s most recent water pollution discharge permit expired in 1992.

The tailings basin, which is where waste rock from the taconite pellet-making process ends up, holds water that carries several pollutants, some of which aren’t listed in the most recent Minntac permit and which the state knows are hazardous, the lawsuit alleges, including sulfates that are known to harm wild rice.

The suit was filed in St. Paul by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Save Lake Superior Association and Save Our Sky Blue Waters.

State regulators, environmental groups, taconite producers and state lawmakers have been debating for years how much, when and where to enforce pollution limits for sulfates and how those limits should be applied to the taconite industry, one of several industries that produce sulfates as a byproduct. High levels of sulfates are believed to create hydrogen sulfide in the water which severely restrict wild rice’s ability to obtain nutrients, starving the plant.

The plant uses about 3,200 gallons of water per minute to slurry fine tailings material, like sand, to the basin for disposal, according to PCA documents.

The nearly 8,000-acre tailings basin is designed to leak to avoid overflowing, potentially millions of gallons daily, and the lawsuit says that’s contaminating local waterways and “has wiped out once abundant wild rice in nearby lakes. The tailings storage facility was built in the 1960s, prior to modern environmental laws. But it must comply to these laws now, and it does not.”

“Companies across the state of Minnesota are required to comply with the Clean Water Act. We only expect U.S. Steel to be held to the same standard as everyone else,” said Hudson Kingston, staff attorney for the MCEA, in a statement announcing the suit.

The lawsuit claims that pollutants in excess of state limits are leaving the tailings basin and adversely impacting the Dark River and Sand River watersheds, including nearby lakes like Sandy Lake, Little Sandy Lake and Twin Lakes. The 38-page suit says pollution limits are exceeded for sulfate, hardness, dissolved solids and bicarbonates and asks the court to impose a new permit with specific limits, by a specific date, on the Minntac discharges.

Dave Verhasselt, PCA spokesman, said the agency is aware of the lawsuit but can’t comment on it at this point. Sarah Cassella, director of communications for U.S. Steel, said the company would not comment on the lawsuit.

Minntac is the largest taconite iron ore mining and processing operation in the U.S. with production up to 16 million tons per year and 1,500 employees. The facility came online in 1967 and was expanded in 1974.

Taconite industry supporters have said the sulfate pollution is not impairing local waterways and that forcing taconite plants to further treat discharge would cost millions of dollars and make the Iron Range plants non-competitive in an increasingly global iron and steel market.

The lawsuit comes after another environmental group, Water Legacy, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to check up on the PCA’s enforcement of federal water pollution standards as applied to the iron ore mining industry. EPA officials have been checking PCA files in Duluth and St. Paul and meeting with PCA officials. It’s possible the federal regulators could take over regulation of the state’s mining industry pollution permits if the feds find that the state has not enforced the laws properly.