Minntac makes its case for water quality variance

Erik Smith of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency listens to comments by Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, during a public hearing Tuesday on a proposal to deny Minntac a water quality variance.

MOUNTAIN IRON — With many of the familiar faces on hand, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hearing on a water quality permit variance took on an unceremonious tone as Iron Range residents offered their input to the state.

The MPCA on Jan. 9 issued a proposal to deny Minntac a water quality permit variance concerning the taconite mine’s tailings basin, opening the public comment process.

Hearings on mining-related issues have become common place on the Range after numerous sessions for PolyMet, a land withdrawal effort by the U.S. Forest Service and the MPCA wild rice sulfate standard revision. And opponents and supporters of the agency’s proposal displayed as much as they went through the motions of Tuesday’s public comment hearing.

“There’s always a standoff between the agency and the business,” said State Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, speaking about the process. “We think it’s prudent action is taken so families and communities can take advantage of these resources, and we implore the MPCA to retake a look at the everything.”

Erik Smith of the MPCA’s industrial division laid out the state’s case to deny the variance, most of which centered around the agency argument that its draft permit addressed concerns from U.S. Steel, which owns and operates Minntac in Mountain Iron.

The biggest disparity, Smith said, was in groundwater treatment where the draft permit asks the company to meet limits in five years, while the variance requests monitoring for 20 years. He referenced a 2011 public document where U.S. Steel said it could meet the standard by 2025.

Other parts of the variance requests, the agency argued, are addressed in a revised draft permit.

“The draft permit put the burden on U.S. Steel on how and when to meet the surface water standard,” Smith said. “The permit granted essentially as much time as you need as long as you’re doing it as soon as possible.”

U.S. Steel officials said the agency has not made the revised draft permit public and said it denied a request to view the new document as late as last week, according to Chrissy Bartovich, director of environment for the company’s Minnesota Ore Operations.

Mining advocates in the room said the agency’s proposal to deny underscores their concern for the variance process widely touted by the MPCA during its wild rice sulfate standard rulemaking. Regional mines and municipalities worried the cost to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities would be astronomical, placing compliance out of reach without a heavy reliance on raising taxes or shuttering mines.

Denying the Minntac variance, they said, solidified those concerns.

“It’s very troubling as we consider the impact of potential future variance requests,” said Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools. “We have never been comforted by the MPCA’s suggestion on variances.”

Supporters of the proposal to deny said the state needs to be cautious issuing variances to the industry. Bob Tammen of Soudan, a retired Minntac miner who has also become a vocal opponent of proposed copper-nickel mines, said the problem goes back to when he worked at the mine in the late 1960s.

“One lifetime is enough for us to make a little progress on cleaning up our mining industry,” Tammen said.

Questions posed to Smith, of the MPCA, on Tuesday raised points of how much the tailings basin seepage is impacting local waters. He said the agency has known the area was out of compliance since around 2011, but didn’t have data to show if seepage has increased.

Smith also said the MPCA does not have hard data on whether the seepage is detrimental to the surrounding environment.

“No, nobody has looked at that very closely,” he said, responding to a question. “Not much of an impact. Everything hasn’t been evaluated around there.”

Public comments on the proposal are being accepted through 4:30 p.m. today. Comments must be emailed or mailed to Erik Smith, MPCA 520 Lafayette Road North, St, Paul, MN 55155 or erik.smith@state.mn.us. Comments must include: a statement of the writer’s interest, the action the writer wishes the agency take, and reasons supporting the writer’s position.

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