United States Steel Corp. moved a step closer to a $300 million expansion of its taconite mine and processing plant in the Iron Range town of Keewatin on Tuesday when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens Board unanimously approved the project's water quality permits.
Project supporters touted the 120 permanent jobs and 500 temporary construction jobs the expansion is expected to create but environmentalists questioned whether the permits had enough teeth. Much of the discussion dealt with how U.S. Steel would make its Keetac operation comply with the state's water quality standards for protecting wild rice, which grows downstream from the plant.
The last major regulatory hurdle U.S. Steel has left is a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel's board gives final approval once all permits are secured, Keetac's capacity would increase by over 50 percent to 9.6 million tons of iron ore pellets per near.
MPCA permit engineer Brandon Smith told the board the project is not expected to result in any water pollution increases and the conditions written into the permits will satisfy all state and federal requirements.
State law limits sulfate discharges into wild rice waters to no more than 10 milligrams per liter. Keetac does not currently treat its discharges for sulfates, and MPCA Commissioner Paul Aasen acknowledged the state has never enforced the standard for any operation. More than 300 municipal wastewater treatment facilities statewide violate the standard, too.
Wild rice is sacred to the state's American Indians and an important food for waterfowl, but it's sensitive to water quality. "It appears to me that wild rice in this case is kind of the canary in the mine," board member Dennis Jensen said.
The permits require Keetac to meet the 10 milligram standard "as soon as possible" but no later than Aug. 17, 2019. Critics noted that the permits don't specify what treatment methods Keetac must use to get there or set any interim standards it must meet before 2019. However, Smith said he believes technology exists that will enable Keetac to comply, and that the agency has sufficient enforcement authority to ensure it does.
Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, praised the MPCA for "making it crystal clear" the sulfate limit will finally be enforced. But she urged the board to back a call by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the MPCA upload its compliance data on Keetac to a public EPA database where everyone could see it. The EPA cited the significant public interest in the permits.
Smith told the board that the MPCA staff was discussing the possibility with the EPA.
Kevin Reuther, legal director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, urged a six-month delay in the vote so the board could hear back from U.S. Steel on details of its treatment studies. He expressed skepticism that the requirement to comply "as soon as possible" will mean much without firmer assurances on how the company will.
But officials with U.S. Steel told the board their treatment technology research is well under way and they're committed to making Keetac the industry leader in pollution controls.
"Over 3½ years ago when we began on this venture it was our intent to go beyond compliance with this project. And we have not wavered from that," said Jeremy Smolich, Keetac's plant manager.
Chrissy Bartovich, environmental director for U.S. Steel's Minnesota ore operations, which also include the Minntac mine in Mountain Iron, said the permits are "the most stringent water quality discharge permits for any taconite mine in the United States. ... These permits are not a choice between jobs and the environment. These permits show that the two can coexist."
Several Iron Range officials and business leaders testified that the expansion is crucial to the local economy.
"U.S. Steel has been an excellent corporate citizen, a steady and reliable employer," said Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids.
Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, said the project is "extremely important" not just because of the jobs, but because the expanded ore production would "substantially increase" taconite tax revenues available for reinvesting in Iron Range communities.