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Minnesota PCA board OKs Keetac expansion air permit

Producing more taconite may not mean producing more mercury, at least not in the long run, for U.S. Steel's proposed expansion of its Keewatin taconite plant.

Producing more taconite may not mean producing more mercury, at least not in the long run, for U.S. Steel's proposed expansion of its Keewatin taconite plant.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency citizens board approved a new air emissions permit Tuesday for the expanded Keetac facility that will make it the first taconite plant in the world with a pollution control system aimed at reducing airborne mercury emissions.

The new "active carbon injection" system will be installed on the

$300 million expansion that will boost the plant's production from 6 million tons per year to 9.6 million and add 120 jobs at the plant that now employs 400 people.

It would be the largest taconite plant expansion in more than 30 years on the Iron Range.

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Supporters say it can happen with 80 percent less mercury than a traditional taconite plant, thanks to new technology.

The company still needs a water pollution permit and a wetlands permit before construction can begin, as well as approval of federal regulators. It's not clear how soon that can happen. Then the company must approve spending the money.

"Following (wetlands and water permits), the project has to go before the U.S. Steel board for their approval before construction can begin," Courtney Boone, corporate spokeswoman for U.S. Steel, told the News Tribune.

PCA officials also have signed a "schedule of compliance," with U.S. Steel that will see mercury emissions at both Keetac and the company's Minntac plant in Mountain Iron cut mercury emissions by more than 75 percent from 2011 levels by 2025, including offsetting all of the new mercury produced by the Keetac expansion.

"When this project was first announced, we stated that our intent was to go beyond compliance when we designed the environmental controls," said Jerry Smolich, Keetac plant manager, in testimony Tuesday in St. Paul. "Some of the environmental controls recommended under this draft permit would be the first ever applied to taconite mines on the Iron Range and would make U.S. Steel an industry leader, and a model for the world in responsible iron pellet production."

But opponents say the expansion still will add the uncaptured 20 percent of mercury from the expansion, some 54 pounds a year more than is currently going into the atmosphere, and that state rules require that 20 percent increase to be offset someplace else.

Paula Maccabee, attorney for Water Legacy, said the PCA staff and board appeared unwilling to include specific mercury reduction limits into the new permit because of strong political pressure.

"They talked a lot of the goals of mercury reduction, but then they (the PCA board) rubber-stamped a permit that has absolutely no requirement for mercury reduction and no requirement that the new mercury be offset anywhere else," Maccabee said. "They (PCA and U.S. Steel) may have a general agreement that mercury should be reduced, but there's nothing in writing requiring it."

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Mercury is naturally locked up in rock, and taconite production has become Minnesota's second-largest source of mercury behind coal-fired power plants. Mercury is considered an environmental and human health threat because, as it falls back to Earth, it can become toxic, building up in fish, animals and people where it can cause neurological and developmental deformities.

All taconite plants must meet that 75 percent mercury reduction, and PCA officials hope the Keetac mercury control system will become a model for other taconite plants to meet their reduction goals.

The overall agreements between the state and U.S. Steel also address the issue of sulfate pollution at Minntac into local rivers. Minntac will install technology that will remove the source of sulfate so it doesn't build up in water used in taconite production. That water was carrying sulfate into the environment, including the St. Louis River.

"This is going to drastically reduce the amount of sulfate they have going through the system and eliminate the need to treat the water leaving the plant," Brian Timerson, project manager for the PCA's strategic projects division, told the News Tribune.

Research in Northeastern Minnesota by state biologists more than 50 years ago showed that when high levels of sulfate was present in rivers, wild rice declined or disappeared. Industry officials say that research was flawed, however, and state lawmakers have called for more data to determine how much sulfate is too much for rice to thrive. In the meantime, state regulators can't enforce the old sulfate limit.

The PCA board also denied a request by environmental groups to hold a contested case hearing on the Keetac air permit. But those groups still have 30 days to appeal the state's action to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental and tribal groups say the PCA is overlooking years of permit violations by U.S. Steel and has little evidence the company can make the promised cuts.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENTIRON RANGE
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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