U.S. Steel on Tuesday filed a claim in State District Court in St. Paul asking a judge to order the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to finish work on specific pollution limits before issuing a new permit for the company's Minntac taconite operations.

The filing, called a writ of mandamus, asks the judge to order the PCA to complete work on site-specific pollutant limits and other regulations before issuing a permit for the company’s tailings basin.

The last Minntac water pollutant permit was issued in 1987 and expired in 1992. The company has applied for reissuance and has been allowed to operate under the old permit as environmental groups have called for an updated version.

The company said that, if the regulatory issues aren’t resolved “U.S. Steel could be required to make significant and unnecessary capital investments in Minntac that could put the facility at a competitive disadvantage, threatening the future viability of the operation and the jobs employed at the operation.”

Minntac is the largest producer of taconite iron ore in the U.S. and employs nearly 1,500 people.

Specifically the company is seeking site-specific guidelines for waterways downstream of the Minntac tailings basin where a slurry of waste rock and water is disposed of. The company contends that waterways downstream do not need some protections for so-called beneficial uses.

The PCA in November issued a new draft permit for Minntac, just days after a lawsuit was filed by environmental groups demanding an updated permit.

The lawsuit was dropped in December, with a stipulation that the PCA continue to move the permit forward.

But by issuing the draft permit before site-specific pollutant standards are finished the PCA “put the cart before the horse,” U.S. Steel alleges in the writ.

“PCA is proceeding with the permitting process in an order that is inconsistent with its owned state plans to first adopt a wild rice sulfate standard,” the writ adds. “The NPDES permitting process (for Minntac) should not proceed until the applicable water quality standards are established.”

“Based on more than 1,000 public comments on this draft permit, it appears that U.S. Steel is out of alignment with the majority of commenters who want to ensure standards are met through the permitting process,” PCA spokesman Dace Verhasselt said in a statement. “Under the thorough permitting process, legal challenges, including requests for contested case hearings, are allowed. U.S. Steel has requested a contested case hearing, but is now also choosing this additional litigation, which will further delay any resolution to this matter. We would have preferred the permitting process run its course. MPCA is committed to ensuring Minnesota’s clean water and environmental standards are rigorously protected.”

Environmentalists have argued that the Minntac facility releases several problem pollutants in the discharge and groundwater seepage from its giant tailings basin, especially sulfate, which at high levels is known to harm wild rice.

The PCA’s recent draft permit for Minntac appears to, for the first time, call for a phased-in sulfate regulation, although it seems to apply to groundwater and not the facility's actual surface discharge.

U.S. Steel “is simply trying to delay any specific requirements that they stop polluting. They are trying to keep operating without rules as they have for years,” said Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group WaterLegacy.

Current state water pollution regulations require sulfate discharges be limited to just 10 milligrams per liter of water, although those limits are under review by regulators and highly criticized by the state's mining industry. But a 2015 state law also prohibits the PCA from enforcing that sulfate limit until more research is conducted on its value.

Past testing showed Minntac emitting sulfate levels as high as 1,320 milligrams per liter, with an average of 954 milligrams per liter.

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 would make Iron Range plants noncompetitive in an increasingly global iron and steel market.

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