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U.S. Steel seeks weaker standards for Dark River

Company’s petition would raise pollution limits from Minntac tailings basin discharges

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/4/19

REGIONAL— Tribal officials and environmentalists are reacting with alarm over a proposal to remove some water quality standards affecting a portion of the Dark River, located northwest of Virginia. …

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U.S. Steel seeks weaker standards for Dark River

Company’s petition would raise pollution limits from Minntac tailings basin discharges


REGIONAL— Tribal officials and environmentalists are reacting with alarm over a proposal to remove some water quality standards affecting a portion of the Dark River, located northwest of Virginia.

The proposal is part of a petition submitted last Aug. 31 by U.S. Steel, which has, for decades, sought to fend off efforts by state and federal regulators to force the company to clean up pollution discharges from its 8,000-acre Minntac tailings basin.

The discharges, which enter both the Dark River and the Sandy River, regularly exceed what limited water quality standards are currently imposed on the company, including for sulfates, specific conductance, and total dissolved solids.

U.S. Steel’s petition is highly technical in nature and seeks to change the official classification of a portion of the Dark River that supports wild and stocked trout. Public waters in Minnesota are regulated based on their classifications, which reflect potential uses of those waters, such as drinking water, recreation, industrial or agricultural irrigation. Those classes include: Class 1 (drinking water), Class 2 (aquatic life, recreation, and wildlife) Class 3 (industrial), Class 4 (agricultural), and Class 5 (aesthetic enjoyment).

Many public waters have multiple designated uses and, when taken together, those designations can impact the water quality standards that the MPCA is required to enforce for those lakes or streams.

U.S. Steel is seeking to drop three designated uses, including drinking water, industrial, and agricultural, for the trout stream portion of the Dark River, which begins about a mile and a half downstream from Dark Lake. According to the company, the change makes sense, since the stretch of river is unlikely to be used for industrial or agriculture and it is not currently used in any significant means for drinking water. The trout stream segment of the Dark River extends eight miles and is located within the Superior National Forest, about 16 miles northeast of Chisholm.

The agency, back in March, issued a call for public comments on U.S. Steel’s proposal, which were due at the end of April. Other steps still lie ahead and MPCA officials say they don’t have a clear timeline at this point as to when they might be ready to issue a decision on U.S. Steel’s proposal.

Yet MPCA officials say they’ve reviewed U.S. Steel’s petition and agree that the information submitted supports the requested review of the designated uses. The MPCA tentatively plans to develop a “use and value demonstration” to remove the uses as U.S. Steel is seeking, “based on the determination that the specific beneficial uses of drinking water, industrial consumption and agricultural irrigation do not currently exist for the trout reach portion of the Dark River, and are reasonably unlikely to occur in the future.”

In many cases, the designated uses are applied to waterways based on little actual analysis or review, but a use and value determination is one way to more thoroughly assess the appropriateness of a use designation.

According to MPCA officials, “all other use classes, and the standards that protect those uses, including the protection of aquatic life and the identification of this water as a trout water, will not be affected by the use classification changes being considered.”

“It looks so reasonable on its surface,” said Nancy Schuldt, water protection coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band, which strongly opposes the change. “You have to really understand the Clean Water Act and the underlying motivation of industry to recognize that this really is appalling.”

At issue, according to critics, is that the three designated uses for the river that U.S. Steel wants to eliminate are the only uses in state rules that come with the strictest numeric standards for some of the very pollutants that U.S. Steel is discharging into area waterways, like the Dark River.

The drinking water standard, for example, sets a sulfate limit of 250 milligrams per liter. Discharges from Minntac’s tailings basin routinely exceed 1,000 mg/l, or four times the allowable drinking water standard. The industrial and agricultural classes also include limits for sulfate, total dissolved solids, and specific conductance, which the Minntac discharges typically exceed.

U.S. Steel doesn’t deny its motivation. In fact, the company is not requesting removing other designated uses, such as livestock watering, because the company isn’t currently violating those standards. “Available data show that these classes’ numeric and narrative standards are met in the Dark River designated trout stream,” states U.S. Steel in its petition filing with the MPCA.

By contrast, U.S. Steel’s discharges into the Dark River have regularly exceeded the water quality standards established for the types of uses that U.S. Steel wants to eliminate. The most significant is the company’s ongoing violation of the drinking water standard for sulfate, of 250 mg/l.

The company has also exceeded standards for hardness, bicarbonates, total dissolved solids, specific conductance and aluminum.

The Dark River would still be designated as Class 2, for aquatic life, recreation, and wildlife, but those public waters are not protected by any numeric water quality standard. Instead, they are covered by what’s known as a narrative standard, which ostensibly requires protection of the environment. Yet those standards, because they are not clearly spelled out, have proven difficult to effectively enforce in the past, note environmental advocates. As a trout stream, the eight-mile stretch of the Dark River in question, is subject to other requirements to maintain cold temperatures and sufficient dissolved oxygen to support trout, but those standards don’t appear to be threatened by Minntac’s discharges.

“It’s pretty clear they’re trying to gut all the surface water quality standards to which they might have to comply,” said Paula Maccabee, legal counsel for Water Legacy. “They’re trying to roll back a half century of environmental laws.”

MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton doesn’t see it that way. “The MPCA is not considering weakening any protections to trout streams, including the Dark River,” he said in response to questions from the Timberjay. “U.S. Steel has requested a change in the designation, which is permitted under Minnesota rules.

The MPCA has taken public comments on this proposed change and is still reviewing them. Any petitioner would not only need to prove the trout stream is not harmed, but also ensure downstream standards are also met - an extremely high bar for any petitioner.”

Ulterior motive?

Tribal officials acknowledge that the change likely wouldn’t make much difference to the Dark River’s trout population, which has managed to persist despite the fact that Minntac has been discharging pollutants into the river for decades.

“The fact that trout might be hanging on isn’t really the issue,” said Schuldt, who notes that other types of aquatic life are more sensitive to some of the pollutants that Minntac is discharging than are trout.

That’s not really the issue, anyway, insists Schuldt. “They’re [U.S. Steel] trying to game the system. The only place they want a change in use classification is where there is any link to a numeric standard that they have to meet.”

While MPCA officials claim that the change won’t impact water quality in the trout portion of the Dark River, that assumes that U.S. Steel won’t use the change in classification as justification for changes in its newly-issued permit. Minntac’s new permit requires the company to eventually install a seepage collection and return system at the outlet to the Dark River in order to reduce its pollution outflow into the Dark River. The MPCA required the company to install a similar system at the outflow of the Sandy River several years ago and officials believe that’s reduced pollution discharges into that river by about 40 percent. The Sandy River is a tributary to the Pike River, which discharges into Lake Vermilion.

According to Broton, the MPCA expects a seepage capture and return system at the Dark River outflow will capture all of the surface discharge, although subsurface seepage would likely continue as is the case for the Sandy River. But that’s based on the projections of engineers in a hydrogeological system that Broton acknowledges is “very complex and variable” in different parts of the basin. “Because of this uncertainty, it is difficult to estimate the projected overall capture efficiency (of total seepage) of the Dark River system,” he stated.

If the MPCA were to change the use classification on the Dark River, as U.S. Steel proposes, it could bolster a subsequent argument by the company that seepage collection isn’t necessary.

The company has aggressively resisted the MPCA’s authority for years, deploying a wide range of strategies to hold off regulators. When that’s failed, they’ve tapped the political clout of Iron Range legislators to get their way in St. Paul.

The MPCA and the state of Minnesota had come under increasing pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the later years of the Obama administration for the state agency’s longstanding failure to clamp down on pollution discharges from Minntac and other taconite mines on the Iron Range.

Environmental advocates now worry that the lax enforcement of the Trump EPA is being seen by industry as an opportunity to weaken regulations across the board, in a way that EPA officials under prior administrations would have never allowed.

“I think that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Maccabee. “Under Trump, there’s a license to do all this stuff. We’re in a period of disregard for the environment and general lawlessness— and it’s terrifying to me.”

In the case of Minntac, Schuldt said the company’s ongoing strategy to undermine water quality enforcement predates the Trump administration. “It is just a bonus for them to have an EPA that’s so lax its oversight capacity. That makes it easier for them to do these things. I’d like to think that the MPCA could not get away with it otherwise.”


13 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • snowshoe2

    It seems like the beginning nation wide of pollute at will for a additional buck. Sad times.

    Thursday, June 6, 2019 Report this

  • Scott Atwater

    .....and the fear mongering begins.

    Friday, June 7, 2019 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    No fear mongering. Just the facts. People on both sides of the issue,most want no pollution. U.S. steel in some of its past operations broke the regulations and polluted and dragged their feet in correcting it. If regulations are weaken after each time permits are granted. Than it spells trouble for clean water and air. Money rules for short term gain.

    Saturday, June 8, 2019 Report this

  • Scott Atwater

    Just facts?

    You said, and I quote "the beginning nation wide of pollute at will for a additional buck."

    That's quite a leap from the Dark River to a nationwide crisis, wouldn't you say. Nobody wants pollution, so your position isn't in any way unique, the controversy is just what exactly is the level of pollution. Who gets to determine what that is, you or the MPCA?

    Sunday, June 9, 2019 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    A jump,not at all. Under the EPA who now is lead by a Coal lobbyist. There has been very very few prosecutions of violations to polluters even tho the EPA career people have brought forward 1000's nationwide. EPA leadership(poor word for a Trump lacky) is deciding to let many pollute and ignore existing laws. Many regulations also have been done away with.

    I know most people in Minnesota and northeastern Minnesota kept saying we want regulations to protect clean water and air. Supporters of Copper mining said we can go forward with like copper mining because strict regulations will protect us. Well will their be any regulations left. Take a look around the nation at different projects for yourself.

    I am all for iron mining,I have a old pit in my back yard all most. But with sound regulations. Old life long iron miners will tell you some companies been cutting corners for years. As long as they can get away with it.

    Sunday, June 9, 2019 Report this

  • Scott Atwater

    You seem to be under the assumption that the more regulations, the cleaner the environment. We know that this isn't true, just as we know that it shouldn't take over a decade to complete an envronmental impact study. I'm not at all interested in the politics that have infested virtually all of the government agencies or the constant hyperbole by advocates of one side or the other. I'm interested in the science, the unadulterated version if you please. Anything less is, to put it bluntly, hysterics and fear mongering.

    Monday, June 10, 2019 Report this

  • Lee Peterson

    Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water to prepare his morning coffee. The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards. With his first swallow of water, he takes his daily medication. His medications are safe to take because some stupid commie liberal fought to ensure their safety and that they work as advertised.

    All but $10 of his medications are paid for by his employer's medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance - now Joe gets it too.

    He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Joe's bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.

    In the morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.

    Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is clean because some environmentalist wacko liberal fought for the laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

    He walks on the government-provided sidewalk to subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants liberal fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

    Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some lazy liberal union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe's employer pays these standards because Joe's employer doesn't want his employees to call the union.

    If Joe is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed, he'll get a worker compensation or unemployment check because some stupid liberal didn't think he should lose his home because of his temporary misfortune.

    It is noontime and Joe needs to make a bank deposit so he can pay some bills. Joe's deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some godless liberal wanted to protect Joe's money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Great Depression.

    Joe has to pay his Fannie Mae-underwritten mortgage and his below-market federal student loan because some elitist liberal decided that Joe and the government would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime. Joe also forgets that in addition to his federally subsidized student loans, he attended a state funded university.

    Joe is home from work. He plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive. His car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating liberal fought for car safety standards to go along with the tax-payer funded roads.

    He arrives at his boyhood home. His was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers' Home Administration because bankers didn't want to make rural loans.

    The house didn't have electricity until some big-government liberal stuck his nose where it didn't belong and demanded rural electrification.

    He is happy to see his father, who is now retired. His father lives on Social Security and a union pension because some wine-drinking, cheese-eating liberal made sure he could take care of himself so Joe wouldn't have to.

    Joe gets back in his car for the ride home, and turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. He doesn't mention that the beloved Republicans have fought against every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day. Joe agrees: "We don't need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I'm a self-made man who believes everyone should take care of themselves, just like I have."

    Monday, June 10, 2019 Report this

  • Lee Peterson

    The above was passed along to me recently. It's relevant.

    Monday, June 10, 2019 Report this

  • Scott Atwater

    Say that's nice and folksy, but hardly relevant. Pretty good odds that "Joe" doesn't get his drinking water from the Dark River.

    Fact: President Richard Nixon proposed the establishment of EPA on July 9, 1970 and it began operation on December 2, 1970, after Nixon signed an executive order. The order establishing the EPA was later ratified by committee hearings in the House and Senate.

    Too bad that there are those that insist on politicizing environmental issues, it does more harm than good.

    Monday, June 10, 2019 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    Nixon was a environmentalist and wilderness lover. Times were different Republicans and Democrats both cared for clean air and water and doing what is right.

    Trump is a politician and does not go by rule of law or scientific fact on anything. Thinks breathing a little lead in from the air is good for your health.

    The political fact is it is 100% politics by Trump not to abide by environmental safeguards put in place. lets go by facts and science if it is pollution or not. Not dollars for the short term.

    Lets mine iron ore. Lets do it right.

    This company has ignored Minnesota PCA regulations and authority for years. Ask your friends who work there. Mine did.

    Monday, June 10, 2019 Report this

  • Scott Atwater

    Sorry, but you are full of B.S.

    The 70's were when an entire generation began taking environmental issues seriously. To say that people of either political persuasion care less about these issues now versus then is simply not true. You're statement about Trump is also false, unnecessary, and childish, but why miss a chance to politicize this even if you have to lie to do it.

    U.S. Steel is working within the framework of the law, and the MPCA is the ultimate authority in this matter. You can accept this, or continue with the fear mongering campaign. Be aware that many have grown weary of your tactics.

    Monday, June 10, 2019 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    Well here is what EPA directors as far back as Reagon say:

    Environmental Protection Agency heads under three previous Republican presidents joined their Democratic counterparts Tuesday in telling lawmakers they were concerned by the Trump administration's rapid rollbacks of environmental protections.

    "The EPA on the track it's on ... is endangering public health," Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under George W. Bush, told the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee. Whitman said she was "deeply concerned that five decades of environmental progress are at risk because of the attitudes and approach of this administration."

    Lee Thomas and William K. Reilly, EPA chiefs under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, also spoke, as did Obama-era EPA leader Gina McCarthy. The unusual testimony came after seven of the 10 surviving, Senate-confirmed past heads of the 49-year-old EPA signed a letter urging lawmakers to work to make the EPA focus on its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

    It is so obvious anyone who denies it really is putting Trump ahead of health and the environment.

    Tuesday, June 11, 2019 Report this

  • Scott Atwater

    The EPA under Gina McCarthy delayed an emergency order for 7 months in the Flint Michigan water crisis.....not exactly the most credible person to offer opinions on endangering the public health.

    Anyone that places political views over scientific fact is the real threat to the environment, the sooner people understand this the better.

    Thursday, June 13, 2019 Report this