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New bill would alter sulfate discharge limits at Keetac mine

Last year’s law that temporarily prevents the Pollution Control Agency from setting new standards for the amount of sulfate that can be discharged into wild rice waters was under discussion once again Tuesday.

The House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee approved a bill supporters say would head off a potential lawsuit by leveling the playing field for one mining facility that must currently comply with what they believe is an outdated sulfate standard.

Sponsored by Rep. Jason Metsa (DFL-Virginia), HF3726 would remove a requirement that the United States Steel Corporation’s Keetac facility in Keewatin observe a wastewater discharge standard of 10 milligrams per liter into waters that produce wild rice. Sulfate is a naturally occurring chemical, but research has shown it can harm wild rice when present in elevated levels.

The bill was sent to the House Floor. Its companion, SF3376, is sponsored by Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) and awaits action by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

Metsa said HF3726 “replaces the 10 standard with the number that will come out as the MPCA works on assigning formulas for the discharged waters that will be affected.” He also said the legislation was needed in order to avoid a lawsuit by United States Steel Corporation.

“I know that U.S. Steel felt that they needed legislation, and that working with the [PCA] they didn’t feel that the law we passed in 2015 covered this issue for that specific permittee,” Metsa said. “What we’re trying to do with this is avoid litigation with a company that would essentially would be suing the State of Minnesota.”

In 2010, Keetac received a permit to discharge water from a former mining pit and was required to follow that 10 mg standard. Larry Sutherland, general manager of Minnesota Ore Operations for U.S. Steel, told the committee this permit made it the only mining facility in Minnesota subject to that standard.

“Because the Keetac permits are unique, HF3726 is designed to clarify the intention [of the legislation] to ensure the MPCA will treat Keetac the same way as all other wastewater dischargers in the Minnesota,” Sutherland said.

However, Scott Strand, executive director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the legislation set a bad precedent by usurping the regular enforcement process and that Keetac should have to comply with the terms of the permits already in place and the discharge limits they require.

The committee adopted one amendment to the bill, which added a provision saying nothing in the legislation relieved permittees of their obligation to satisfy an agreed upon schedule of compliance for sulfate discharge limits in effect as of May 1, 2016.

This raised questions for several committee members concerned the amendment would exempt U.S. Steel from a schedule of compliance it agreed to in March. But an attorney for PCA testified the amendment did not change the terms of that agreement. 

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