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Business North - The Daily Briefing - Business Newspaper Online
EPA reverses itself on iron facility pollution
By ELIZABETH DUNBAR
MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it's taking back a past decision allowing an iron production facility to exceed water quality standards.
In a notice filed Monday in federal court, EPA officials said they were voluntarily vacating the agency's approval in December 2012 of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's variance for Mesabi Nugget, which produces iron pellets at a plant near Hoyt Lakes. The EPA instead plans to reject the variance, the filing said.
The MPCA had asked EPA officials to make an exception for Mesabi Nugget and allow the company to exceed water quality standards for four pollutants, including sulfate. The EPA approved that variance, but two environmental groups and two tribes said the EPA was wrong to issue the variance and sued the agency.
Although EPA officials admitted in court that they made a mistake, what happens next is unclear. Mesabi Nugget could ask for another variance. Company officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The decision by the EPA could be significant given that state officials are on the brink of issuing recommendations on whether Minnesota's strict sulfate standard should go up, down or stay the same based on new research on how sulfate affects wild rice. The sulfate standard affects Minnesota's iron mining industry, as well as wastewater treatment plants and other industrial facilities.
If the variance for Mesabi Nugget had stayed in place, the company would have been allowed to exceed the state's 10 mg/L sulfate limit for wild rice producing waters, and it's possible other companies would have followed with similar variance requests.
The environmental groups involved in the lawsuit, WaterLegacy and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, applauded the EPA's decision, saying it sets the stage to require Mesabi Nugget to meet Minnesota water quality standards.
"We hope to be able to work with the EPA to ensure that mining facilities throughout the Lake Superior Basin follow Minnesota's legal rules that protect clean water, wild rice and fish," Paula Maccabee, WaterLegacy's attorney and advocacy director, said in a news release.
"This is a victory for the Clean Water Act," Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, added in a written statement. "This law works to protect Minnesota's waters only when everyone has to follow the same rules."
Fond du Lac and Grand Portage band leaders said the EPA's decision was important in rebuilding their relationship with federal regulators.
"We are not against mining, and support the jobs mining brings to the Iron Range," Grand Portage Chairman Norman Deschampe said in a written statement. "But industry has to comply with the Clean Water Act and acknowledge our treaty rights."
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