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Minnesota officials: No sulfate variance for Minntac

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Tuesday said it plans to deny U.S. Steel a variance in its water pollution discharge permit for the company's massive Minntac taconite iron ore processing center in Mountain Iron.

Part of U.S. Steel's Minntac facility. (2015 file / News Tribune)
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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Tuesday said it plans to deny U.S. Steel a variance in its water pollution discharge permit for the company’s massive Minntac taconite iron ore processing center in Mountain Iron.

The preliminary denial is now open for public comment, with a public hearing set for Jan. 23 in Mountain Iron.

Minntac asked for a 20-year variance for sulfates, bicarbonates, dissolved solids and other pollutants before any regulatory enforcement so it can develop affordable ways to control the pollutants.

But environmental groups and, to some extent, state regulators say the company needs to move faster to correct pollution problems that have been ongoing for 30 years or more.

Instead of offering Minntac a blanket variance, the PCA in November 2016 released a draft permit for Minntac that included a “compliance schedule” to phase in enforcement of regulations.


The draft permit’s compliance schedule called for Minntac to reduce sulfate within its tailings basin to 800 milligrams per liter within 5 years and to 357 mg/L within 10 years. Past testing showed Minntac emitting sulfate levels as high as 1,320 mg/L, with an average of 954 mg/L.

“We believe that a compliance schedule is a better way to move this process forward and that a permit variance isn't warranted,” said Erik Smith of the PCA’s industrial division.

But 14 months later, the draft permit remains on hold as procedural and legal wrangling unwind. The variance denial is the latest development in a series of ongoing disputes over the company’s pollution permits that have gone on for years and show no signs of resolution.

That includes a lawsuit filed by U.S. Steel against the PCA last February asking a judge to stop the agency from issuing a new permit until new, statewide sulfate rules are developed. That lawsuit was quietly resolved and dropped just last week, Smith confirmed.

Environmental groups also filed suit in 2016, and then dropped the suit, seeking a faster resolution to the Minntac problem as tension between jobs and environmental protection mounts.

Smith said there is no timeline for the issue to be solved. Until then Minntac can continue to operate, and continue to violate pollution standards, indefinitely.

“There are just too many variables in the way to release any kind of timeline,” he said.

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. The plant’s most recent water permit expired in 1992 and the operations have been violating sulfate and other standards since at least 2000, PCA documents note. The PCA said sulfate was a known issue at Minntac as early as 1987.


High levels of sulfate are known to spur sulfides, which are harmful to wild rice. But the state says that human health also is an issue - that levels of sulfate and dissolved solids are now above safe drinking water standards in groundwater under the Minntac tailings basin, the giant impoundment that receives all the taconite processing waste.

"U.S. Steel remains firmly committed to our core value of environmental stewardship, and we’ve proven that by investing over $100 million in environmental activities at Minntac over the last 10 years," U.S. Steel said in a statement. "We have been working with MPCA to develop the proper solutions to address water quality standards and we look forward to a resolution that ensures environmental protection and the competitiveness of Minnesota’s iron ore mining industry."

The Iron Mining Association of Minnesota said it was "disappointed" by the PCA's announcement, saying that state officials had "acknowledged that while there is currently no easy or cost-effective method of treatment to meet their proposed wild rice sulfate standard, affected entities could apply for variances until they find a better solution."

“The MPCA’s proposed denial of U.S. Steel’s variance application is very concerning because it poses challenges for a larger employer on the Iron Range and raises questions about how the agency will respond to variance applications from other industrial facilities and municipalities in the state,” IMA President Kelsey Johnson said in a news release.

Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group Water Legacy, said the PCA continues to be too easy on Minntac, noting the company has had more than 30 years to resolve the problems. Instead of paying for water treatment technology, Maccabee said, Minntac is paying attorneys to drag any solution out.

“Minntac’s variance request was really outrageous. It was not only for sulfate, which kills wild rice, but also for salts and ions and other things that kill fish. They were asking for a variance from rules that have been in effect since 1973,” Maccabee said. “The variance simply would not have complied with the Clean Water Act. … Minntac is saying they simply don’t want to comply with the law.”

Last spring the PCA filed a 33-page response to Minntac’s lawsuit, saying the company has regularly violated agreements with the state to reduce pollutants even as nearby waters showed ever-higher levels of problem substances. The state response blamed the Minntac operations and pollution seeping out of its massive, 8,000-acre tailings basin for pollution of nearby waters.

“Since the tailings basin was permitted, concentration of sulfate and other dissolved elements have increased in the groundwater around the tailings basin,” the PCA said, also noting that the Dark River, Sandy River, Sandy Lake and Little Sandy Lake now exceed some standards for sulfate, bicarbonate, hardness, specific concordance and total dissolved solids “because of polluted groundwater from the tailings basin is entering those surface waters.”


Current state regulations require sulfate discharges be limited to just 10 milligrams per liter of water. Under criticism from the state's mining industry that the sulfate rule was too strict, the PCA last year said it is developing a new sulfate standard with different rules for each waterway that holds wild rice, depending on the lake or river’s chemistry. Those rules still are being hammered out.

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

Meanwhile, the PCA is considering a request to hold contested case hearings in front of an administrative law judge on the permit issues, a move that could drag any solution out months longer.

Public hearing

The PCA has set a public hearing on its decision to deny U.S. Steel a variance in its water pollution discharge permit for Minntac. The hearing is scheduled for Jan. 23 from 4-6 p.m. at the Mountain Iron Community Center, 8586 Enterprise Drive South.

Written comments will be accepted at the hearing or can be sent through Jan. 24 to Erik Smith, MPCA, 520 Lafayette Road North, St. Paul, MN 55155 or . For more information, go to and search for "Minntac variance."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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