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Nolan asks EPA to limit sulfate impact on highway projects

Efforts to use sulfate pollution concerns to thwart highway construction projects in northern Minnesota have caught the wrath of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.

Efforts to use sulfate pollution concerns to thwart highway construction projects in northern Minnesota have caught the wrath of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.

Nolan, D-Crosby, has sent a letter to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency urging them to "stick to the facts" when considering sulfate as an issue in two major projects.

Critics have cited sulfate content in rock along State Highway 169 between Virginia and Ely as a reason to change the track of highway reconstruction planned along the stretch for a decade or more. Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say that's the first project in Minnesota where sulfate levels, and potential sulfate runoff, have been mentioned as a reason not to build a highway.

Sulfate levels also have been cited as a reason not to reroute U.S. Highway 53 in Virginia through the active Thunderbird Mine owned by Cliffs Natural Resources.

In a letter to EPA Region Five Administrator Susan Hedman in Chicago, Nolan referred to written and oral comments by EPA officials to representatives of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and others to the effect that the projects would expose drivers to dangerous levels of sulfate from rock and soil disturbed during and after construction. He said statements by EPA representatives "have been overreaching in scope, careless in terms of net consequence and imbalanced with respect to a broad view of public concerns."

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In particular, Nolan said comments made by a senior environmental scientist at EPA promote "the appearance that EPA is attempting to forcefully influence other federal and state agencies by leveraging the serious issue of sulfates in mining operations with the minor and largely temporary impact due to surface modifications such as road construction."

Nolan, who toured the Highway 169 project in March, said money for the project was appropriated by Congress to address serious safety concerns over a section "that contains several curves, has surface areas shaded from winter sunlight, and poses a known hazard to the public in winter driving conditions, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries."

The most-favored route for the rebuild has been on hold, apparently in part because of the sulfate issue.

Sulfate pollution has been an issue as Minnesota's first copper-mining projects move toward approval added with existing taconite mining.

Nolan also blamed EPA comments on potential air-quality issues in the Highway 53 reroute that sulfate levels would have been too high under federal standards to allow the road to be built through an existing mine. Nolan said the federal rules apply to constant exposure, not simply driving through a short stretch of highway.

While air quality has been cited as a reason not to allow that route for the highway, Cliffs Natural Resources officials also have said they won't allow the highway in the mine because of other issues, including safety and mine operations.

Nolan said he plans to meet with Hedman and other EPA officials in Chicago in an attempt to resolve the issues.

"If EPA becomes too cavalier with regard to the comments or threats made to others on proposed projects, and fails to be flexible in finding workable solutions that are realistic and achievable, within reasonable cost constraints, the agency will continue to lose critical public support, and may find a rising public demand for their powers to be restrained by statute," Nolan wrote in the letter.

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