Minntac

U.S. Steel’s Minntac plant in Mountain Iron.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Tuesday said it plans to deny U.S. Steel a variance in its water pollution discharge permit for the company's massive Minntac taconite iron ore processing center in Mountain Iron.

The preliminary denial is now open for public comment, with a public hearing set for Jan. 23 in Mountain Iron.

Minntac asked for a 20-year variance for sulfates, bicarbonates, dissolved solids and other pollutants before any regulatory enforcement so it can develop affordable ways to control the pollutants.

But environmental groups and, to some extent, state regulators say the company needs to move faster to correct pollution problems that have been ongoing for 30 years or more.

Instead of offering Minntac a blanket variance, the PCA in November 2016 released a draft permit for Minntac that included a "compliance schedule" to phase in enforcement of regulations.

The draft permit's compliance schedule called for Minntac to reduce sulfate within its tailings basin to 800 milligrams per liter within 5 years and to 357 mg/L within 10 years. Past testing showed Minntac emitting sulfate levels as high as 1,320 mg/L, with an average of 954 mg/L.

"We believe that a compliance schedule is a better way to move this process forward and that a permit variance isn't warranted," said Erik Smith of the PCA's industrial division.

But 14 months later, the draft permit remains on hold as procedural and legal wrangling unwind. The variance denial is the latest development in a series of ongoing disputes over the company's pollution permits that have gone on for years and show no signs of resolution.

That includes a lawsuit filed by U.S. Steel against the PCA last February asking a judge to stop the agency from issuing a new permit until new, statewide sulfate rules are developed. That lawsuit was resolved and dropped last week, Smith confirmed.

Environmental groups also filed suit in 2016, and then dropped the suit, seeking a faster resolution to the Minntac problem as tension between jobs and environmental protection mounts.

Smith said there is no timeline for the issue to be solved. Until then Minntac can continue to operate, and continue to violate pollution standards, indefinitely.

"There are just too many variables in the way to release any kind of timeline," he said.

The industry expressed concern Tuesday over the MPCA’s proposal, citing the agency’s past stance on variances.

“The MPCA’s proposed denial of U.S. Steel’s variance application is very concerning because it poses challenges for a larger employer on the Iron Range and raises questions about how the agency will respond to variance applications from other industrial facilities and municipalities in the state,” Iron Mining Association President Kelsey Johnson said. “The MPCA has continually used the potential for variances to brush away concerns raised by multiple stakeholders. But this proposed denial raises serious concerns that the agency has no intention of granting variances on the wild rice sulfate standard.”

The Mesabi Daily News contributed to this report.

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