High court sides with MPCA in Minntac sulfate dispute

High court sides with MPCA in Minntac sulfate dispute Photo: WDIO-TV file

WDIO-TV
Updated: February 10, 2021 04:09 PM
Created: February 10, 2021 12:19 PM

The Minnesota Supreme Court has sided with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in a dispute over regulation of sulfate discharges from U.S. Steel's Minntac facility in Mountain Iron.

The regulator and Minntac, the state's largest iron ore mine, have been discussing the level of sulfate in waters around the Minntac tailings basin since the 1980s. U.S. Steel installed a system to capture and return wastewater seepage in 2010.

In 2018, the MPCA issued a permit that would require Minntac to meet a groundwater sulfate limit of 250 mg/L at the facility's boundary by 2025, far lower than the 585 mg/L to 928 mg/L reported in 2018.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals struck down the permit in 2019, prompting the MPCA to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

In the opinion issued Wednesday, the high court says the heart of the dispute is whether groundwater is considered to be a "Class 1 water" under state law, which would make it subject to the federal secondary drinking water standard. The court ruled that groundwater is a Class 1 water and that the MPCA properly exercised its authority.

The Supreme Court's ruling sends the dispute back to the state Court of Appeals to consider whether the MPCA properly denied U.S. Steel's requests for a permit-related contested case hearing and a variance from certain groundwater standards included in the 2018 permit.

U.S. Steel sent a statement, saying, "We are reviewing the Court's decision at this time. We remain committed to protecting our shared environment, our employees, our customers, and the communities of the Iron Range."

So did the MPCA. "The Minnesota Supreme Court provided needed clarity regarding the MPCA's ability to protect the state's drinking waters that include groundwaters. The Court reaffirmed the MPCA had the authority to require federal sulfate limits in the permit issued to MinnTac in 2018. The agency encourages MinnTac to make meaningful progress in reducing its sulfate discharges while the Court of Appeals addresses the remaining matters in the legal challenge."

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