In the midst of a major debate over how to regulate mining wastewater, Minnesota has issued new, tougher permit requirements for a major industry site, calling for phased-in sulfate regulations for the first time.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released a new draft permit last month for U.S. Steel's Minntac taconite plant, imposing stricter controls on the facility’s giant waste pit, according to the Star Tribune.
The state agency issued the draft permit “just days after a lawsuit was filed. It would be the first new permit for the facility in 24 years and appears to at least try to bring the largest U.S. iron ore producing facility into compliance with water pollution regulations,” the Duluth News Tribune reported.
“The new permit will regulate the concentration of sulfates and other pollutants in Minntac's tailings pool,” the report said.
“The goal of this permit is to reduce pollutant levels in point source discharges and protect water quality in accordance with Minnesota and U.S. statutes and rules,” the state said in the draft permit, which is posted online.
The development prompted environmental groups to drop a lawsuit against the state, but if the state does not meet certain conditions, they can restart the lawsuit. The conditions include completing the new permit within nine months, the Star Tribune reported.
"This lawsuit shined a light on the fact that [the state] has failed to regulate the mining industry in Minnesota," said Hudson Kingston, a lawyer with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA).
The new permit imposes restrictions that have not been used in the past.
“The draft permit appears to, for the first time, call for a phased-in sulfate regulation,” the Duluth News Tribune reported. “Past testing showed Minntac emitting sulfate levels as high as 1,320 milligrams per liter, with an average of 954 milligrams per liter.”
Wastewater permits for mining operations have been an issue of considerable debate in Minnesota.
“At least 15 taconite operations operate in Minnesota with expired permits that haven't been updated to comply with tougher standards for protecting water, wildlife and wild rice. But none has gone as long as Minntac, whose permit expired in 1992. The water permits are normally issued every five years,” the Star Tribune reported.
Sulfate, in particular, has been a subject of debate between miners and regulators. Industry supporters say sulfate pollution does not pose a threat to local waterways, and that regulating it could make their plants noncompetitive.
“Current state water pollution regulations require sulfate discharges be limited to just 10 milligrams per liter of water, although those limits are under review by regulators and highly criticized by the state's mining industry. But a 2015 state law also prohibits the PCA from enforcing that sulfate limit until more research is conducted on its value,” the Duluth Star Tribune reported.
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