Minnesota says EPA wrong to reverse Mesabi Nugget variance decision

Contact: Ralph Pribble, 651-757-2657

St. Paul, Minn. — The Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator at Region 5 in Chicago asserting the EPA was wrong to disapprove a water-quality variance for the Mesabi Nugget facility that it had earlier approved. The letter requests the EPA to reconsider and reverse its decision.

A variance authorizes a facility to discharge more of a pollutant than would normally be allowed for a specified period of time. The Mesabi Nugget variance relates to four pollutants (hardness, bicarbonates, total dissolved solids, specific conductance) in wastewater discharged from a pit at the facility. The variance did not include an exception for the sulfate water quality standard that protects wild rice.

The Mesabi Nugget facility is located on a portion of the former LTV Steel site near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. Water in the mine pit on the property exceeded water quality standards for the four pollutants covered by the variance at the time of the LTV Steel shutdown. In order to comply with the standards for the four pollutants, the facility needs time to identify, install and test a set of treatment technologies that cannot simply be bought off the shelf. Therefore, in close consultation with EPA, MPCA worked out a variance in 2012 containing a schedule for the discharge to come into compliance by 2021.

Water quality standards are developed to protect specific uses such as drinking water, industrial use, irrigation and protection of aquatic life. The variance was for standards that protect for industrial and irrigation use. Neither of these uses are known to exist downstream of the discharge. EPA’s July 2 letter states that “MPCA adequately provided for the attainment and maintenance of the water quality standard of downstream waters.” For instance, the permit contains conditions to ensure protection of aquatic life (fish and aquatic bugs) and prohibits a discharge from April 1 to Aug. 31 for protection of wild rice.

EPA approved the variance as part of the reissued water quality permit in 2012. However, it reversed its decision in a letter to the MPCA dated July 2, 2014, disapproving the variance. The key reason EPA cited for changing its position was the length of time allowed for the discharge to come into compliance. EPA alleged the MPCA had not fully justified the length of the schedule. EPA did not assert or suggest that they reversed their decision based on any scientific or technical issue or deficiency. The MPCA letter also says that EPA did not take into consideration a permit provision that authorizes MPCA to shorten the compliance schedule if the company is successful in finding solutions earlier.

This is new territory for both agencies, according to MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, who said he could not recall an instance where EPA had disapproved a variance that it had previously approved.

“We worked hard over many months with the EPA’s regional staff on the variance in 2012 which resulted in the initial EPA approval of the variance. We value our working relationship with Region 5 EPA staff. But after taking time to review the basis of the recent decision to disapprove the variance and to consider the implications of that decision, we have decided to ‘strategically oppose’ EPA.

“Our decision to grant the variance was based on sound science and careful reasoning, and we are fully prepared to defend it,” Stine said.