In my May column, I promised to write more about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) investigation into Minnesota’s compliance with the federal Clean Water Act (CWA).
As the state prepares to consider a number of permits sought by PolyMet Mining Co. for its copper-nickel mine and processing plant in northeastern Minnesota, it appears that Minnesota has been asleep at the switch in monitoring pollution from taconite mining and other industrial facilities – over several decades.
The environmental group WaterLegacy petitioned the EPA last year (July 2, 2015), calling on the agency to withdraw the state’s authority to enforce industrial pollution permits under the CWA. WaterLegacy argued that some 25 mining facilities in the state are operating with expired permits, putting water resources and wild rice at risk.
The EPA launched an investigation into the allegations of lax environmental oversight, and has now asked the Minnesota attorney general to respond to its questions by Aug. 12. The EPA wants to know how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) can protect our waters, especially after the Legislature passed measures in 2015 and 2016 that essentially exempted taconite mining operations from complying with a 40-year-old sulfate standard for waters that contain wild rice. Scientific studies have found that sulfide in lake sediment starves wild rice.
“This is about time, it’s been decades, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has just refused to enforce the wild rice sulfate standard,” said Paula Maccabee, WaterLegacy’s advocacy director and counsel, regarding the EPA deadline.
“The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has operated in a vacuum where the only real participants have been the mining companies,” Maccabee continued, during a phone interview in late July. She said that there has been a “complete failure to comply with the Clean Water Act” in Minnesota.
The 2015 state law that instructed the MPCA not to enforce the standard on sulfate pollution was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Maccabee. She said that WaterLegacy had been amassing evidence of the state’s environmental performance for some months, then decided the time had come to “call out the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Legislature for failure to respect the Clean Water Act and failure to enforce laws limiting mine pollution.”
In addition to failing to enforce pollution regulations, the MPCA and legislators have succumbed to the “undue influence of mining industry lobbyists.”
When I worked at the Legislature, more than 20 years ago, and covered the House environment committee, progressive environmental legislation was shredded to bits. It took me some time to realize that industry lobbyists were behind the gutting of these bills.
In response to my question, Maccabee explained that WaterLegacy makes all of its strategic decisions “in consultation with the tribal staff.” For example, the group’s 2015 petition to the EPA to withdraw Minnesota’s authority for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program under the Clean Water Act, was based on documents and investigations by the water quality staffs of the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands (this has been corrected from the print version, which listed Boise Forte incorrectly).
I wrote in my May column that the Ojibwe bands say that state officials for the past eight years have ignored their concerns about the PolyMet copper-nickel project. Since the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved the PolyMet environmental impact statement, Indian band officials have turned their focus to federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which still need to grant permits for the controversial sulfide mining project.
The Indian bands have to be consulted during the environmental review process, because the PolyMet project threatens the health of the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, beyond the borders of the reservations. The Indian bands retain rights to hunt, fish and gather in this territory.
At the end of our conversation, Maccabee explained, “WaterLegacy was formed to address the new threat of sulfide mining, which is a threat to Indian country, and a threat to the Boundary Waters, and a threat to Lake Superior.”
She commented that “regular citizens” often told her that if sulfide mining was going to come into the state, “Minnesota is a place where there is such tough regulations and such good enforcement. What we realized several years into this research is that that’s a myth: Minnesota does not enforce pollution control standards.” And Maccabee added that there are no standards for many new pollutants.
“The last thing we should do in Minnesota is experiment with sulfide mining,” she concluded, in view of state regulators’ failure to control “the much less toxic pollution from taconite mining.”