Minnesota regulators are seeking to change water standards across the state.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has proposed the set of rule changes. The changes would remove numerical standards set for conductivity, hardness, sodium and bicarbonates in waters meant for industry and irrigation. They also would allow for higher amounts of chloride, alkalinity, salinity and total dissolved solids in waters meant for industry, irrigation and livestock, and wildlife drinking.
Such standards are considered when setting limits in permits about the amount of pollutant a facility is allowed to release into those waters.
The rule changes have the support of municipal wastewater treatment plants throughout Minnesota and the state's two iron ore mining and pelletizing companies. They say the current standards are outdated and would be costly to achieve. However, some environmentalists say the changes would weaken water standards and allow industries to damage Minnesota waters.
The MPCA declined to comment on the proposed rule change Monday because it is an active process but referred the News Tribune to a Feb. 4 public hearing.
In that hearing, Scott Kyser, an MPCA research scientist, said the changes are overdue.
"They are based on outdated 1967 science and outdated rule language," Kyser said. "And they need a touchup."
He said many limits in permits are based on the existing standards but lack "critical components" and are difficult for the agency to enforce. The numerical standards would be replaced with "narrative standards."
While the MPCA maintains such narrative standards would be enforceable and "equally protective" as numerical standards, Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for WaterLegacy, compared numerical standard to speed limits of 55 miles per hour on the road while a narrative standard would be like saying "don't go too fast."
"So it might be dangerous," she said.
On pollution, it means deregulation of industry, Maccabee said.
"The result is a very significant deregulation affecting the mining industry because the kind of salts and major ion pollution that these Class 3 and 4 rules would regulate — that's the suite that is discharged by mines," Maccabee said. "And that is the suite of pollution that the MPCA has not had the spine to enforce for the past several decades."
The MPCA did not answer a question from the News Tribune on Monday asking if it had been enforcing the existing rules it now seeks to change.
The rule changes have the support of Cleveland-Cliffs and U.S. Steel, owners of the mines and pellet plants on the Iron Range.
U.S. Steel's push for rule changes included a 2017 lawsuit the company filed in an attempt to compel the MPCA to consider the rule changes before it issued a water discharge permit for the Minntac mine, pellet plant and tailings basin in Mountain Iron.
Without such changes to Class 3 and 4 waters, Minntac said it would face "unrecoverable capital treatment expenditures of well over one hundred million dollars, and annual operating costs that would range in the tens of millions of dollars."
The MPCA and U.S. Steel settled in January 2018 with an agreement that rule changes would be handled in the state's administrative process, which is ongoing. The MPCA issued Minntac its water discharge permit, the first since 1987, in November 2018.
Municipal water treatment plants across the state also support the rule changes.
During the Feb. 4 public hearing, Elizabeth Wefel, an attorney for Flahtery and Hood representing the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities said many cities would face expensive upgrades if the existing rules remained.
"We are concerned about the resources that would be required to upgrade wastewater facilities to comply with outdated standards, costly upgrades that would not help the environment," Wefel said.
According to the MPCA, more than 150 municipal wastewater treatment plants are affected by the current standards.
The MPCA says on its website that the changes "will protect state waters while lowering regulatory hurdles. … Applying modern science to the standards will provide a more nuanced, localized approach to protecting water quality. In addition, the revised standards will allow for flexibility in creating permits, reduce wastewater permitting delays, and avoid wastewater treatment costs that don’t provide environmental benefits."
The public comment period ends at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Within 30 days of that ending, the Office of Administrative Hearings will issue a report on the rule changes. The report could lead the MPCA to make changes to the rules it seeks to update. But if the changes are approved, the process to formally adopt the rules will begin. The rule changes will also require approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.