U.S. Steel has never been shy when it comes to undermining Minnesota’s water quality regulations, particularly as they apply to its Minntac facility north of Virginia. As we’ve reported before, the company’s 8,000-acre tailings basin continues to discharge millions of gallons of highly contaminated water each day into the Dark and Sandy Rivers, as well as into wetlands that encircle much of the massive dike system that contains more than a half century’s worth of taconite tailings.
Yet the company’s latest effort to escape regulation is their most brazen to date and suggests that U.S. Steel is, increasingly, regulating the state’s Pollution Control Agency rather than the other way around.
As we report this week, the company has proposed to change the use classification of an eight-mile stretch Dark River trout waters in order to eliminate the company’s need to clean up a number of pollutants, including sulfate, aluminum, and total dissolved solids.
Currently, the company’s discharges to the Dark River cause frequent violations of water quality rules, particularly for sulfate. Fortunately, trout aren’t very sensitive to sulfate levels, but plenty of other aquatic organisms are, so there is little doubt that U.S. Steel’s pollution is harming some forms of life within both the Dark and Sandy rivers.
Rather than clean up its pollution, the company is proposing to drop three use classifications, including drinking water, industrial consumption, and agricultural irrigation, that currently apply to the trout waters of the Dark River and that come with stricter water quality standards than waters designated for other types of uses. U.S. Steel argues that the waters of that portion of the river aren’t currently used by industry or agriculture, or for drinking. While that may be true, the impact of the change will be to allow the company to continue to pollute the river as it has done for decades. Under the company’s recently-issued water discharge permit, the company would be required to take measures to reduce its pollution discharges to the Dark River, but the company has been ordered to do that before and has managed to delay taking action.
If U.S. Steel can pressure the MPCA into altering the use classification of portions of the Dark River, and effectively weakening water quality standards, it will almost certainly argue that it is in better compliance with those standards and, therefore, wouldn’t need to address its contaminated discharge into the river.
MPCA officials argue that the change won’t impact water quality in the Dark River, but that’s just sophistry. While it’s true that the change won’t worsen water quality in the river, which has been damaged for years by Minntac’s discharges, adopting the company’s proposed changes to the use classification will likely lead to the weakening or elimination of any requirement for the company to actually clean up its act.
While U.S. Steel’s proposal is couched in the legal technicalities of Minnesota’s somewhat arcane water quality rules, the bottom line is clear: the company isn’t complying with water quality standards and, rather than reduce its pollution discharges, U.S. Steel wants the MPCA to approve weaker standards.
For a Walz administration that has taken a relatively pro-environment stance to date, approving such a request from any industrial polluter would be questionable. But to accept this proposal from a corporation with a long history of bad faith when it comes to addressing the environmental impacts of its pollution, would be jaw-dropping— particularly at a time when state regulators are trying to convince the public they can protect the state’s water quality from copper-nickel mining, a far more dangerous type of mining than taconite.
At a time when the Trump administration is working overtime to weaken or scuttle environmental protections across the board, we need state leaders who are willing to backfill the breach and stand up for Minnesota’s waters. Approving U.S. Steel’s proposal would demonstrate a state government that’s willing to take advantage of the Trump administration’s hostility to environmental regulation to aid one of the state’s biggest and most stubborn polluters. That would be a shameful legacy for any Minnesota governor. It’s a legacy that Gov. Walz should work to avoid.