REGIONAL— Minntac’s newly-issued water discharge permit for its 8,700-acre tailings basin north of Virginia, is being challenged in court as a violation of state and federal law. Duluth-based Water Legacy recently filed an appeal of the new permit, which the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued in November 2018.
Water Legacy legal counsel Paula Maccabee said the new permit fails to comply with state and federal water quality standards for sulfate, specific conductance, bicarbonates, and hardness. The massive tailings basin continues to discharge large volumes of polluted water through seepage and/or direct discharge into both the Dark and Sand rivers. The Sand River is a tributary of the Pike River, which flows into Lake Vermilion. The basin also contaminates groundwater in and around the mine site as well as nearby wetlands through dozens of seepages located along the basin’s perimeter.
Unpolluted waters in the region typically have sulfate levels below 10 milligrams per liter. Studies have consistently shown that sulfate levels above 10 mg/l can diminish the growth of wild rice. Tribal governments and environmentalists have cited recent declines in wild rice beds in waters downstream from the Minntac tailings basin, particularly in Sandy and Little Sandy lakes, as evidence of the environmental harm the basin is creating.
Water Legacy is raising several issues in its appeal, including whether the MPCA complied with federal law when it declined to enforce the state’s wild rice standard on Minntac’s discharges. The appeal also questions whether the 2015 state law that prevents enforcement of the wild rice standard indefinitely is, itself, a violation of federal law. Water Legacy is also challenging the MPCA’s determination that the Minntac tailings basin does not qualify as a “point source” of pollution, as well as the agency’s decision not to enforce water quality standards for the company’s various pollution discharges.
Under the new permit, the company would be required to slowly improve the water quality within the basin. In particular, the permit requires the company to reduce the sulfate levels in the tailings basin from current concentrations of approximately 1,000 milligrams per liter, to 800 mg/l within five years and 357 mg/l within ten years.
The company would also be required to reduce sulfate pollution in groundwater to 250 mg/l by the end of 2025.
The MPCA and the company have previously reached agreements to reduce sulfate levels in the tailings basin, but the company has repeatedly reneged on those commitments. Previous attempts by the MPCA to control discharges of polluted water from the tailings basin have run into political opposition in the Minnesota Legislature, particularly from Iron Range legislators.
MPCA spokesperson Dave Verhasselt indicated that the agency is committed to enforcing applicable standards. “U.S. Steel [Minntac] will be held accountable to meet the terms and conditions set out in the permit, including the actions and timelines in the compliance schedule,” said Verhasselt. “The current permit, with identified timelines and targets, is more readily enforceable than the previous permit, which lacked such specific requirements.”
The new five-year permit, which took effect Dec. 1, replaces a permit that the MPCA had originally issued in 1987 and that had expired in 1992.