Tailings basin concerns for Iron Range’s MinnTac mine

U.S. Steel's MinnTac facility is the largest active iron ore operation in the United States, and "king" of the Iron Range mines of Northern Minnesota. Recently, the EPA dinged MinnTac for problems in its tailings basin, adding new questions and talking points in the region's ongoing political debate over mining and the economic future of the region. (PHOTO: U.S. Steel)

U.S. Steel’s MinnTac facility is the largest active iron ore operation in the United States, and “king” of the Iron Range mines of Northern Minnesota. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency dinged MinnTac for problems in its tailings basin, adding new questions and talking points in the region’s ongoing political debate over mining and the economic future of the region. (PHOTO: U.S. Steel)

The state will be looking closely at permit renewal plans at MinnTac in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued concerns recently that the tailings basin at Minnesota’s largest taconite mine inadequately filters runoff into area waters, including those that flow into Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe area. The Star Tribune‘s Josephine Marcotty wrote about this matter in a Jan. 10, 2015 story, but I’ve heard rumblings from those close to the proceedings that Minnesota Pollution Control Agency response has already begun.

At issue is the fact that MinnTac is overdue to renew its water and air permits. MinnTac was one of the first of Minnesota’s taconite mines to enter production back in the 1960s, thus ushering in a new era of iron mining in the region. That also makes it the first of the mines to face questions as long standing practices are balanced against new technology and environmental requirements. In essence, modern regulations will require updates to MinnTac tailings basin beyond what the company proposed in its reapplication for permits.

It’s hard to imagine anything happening that would stop production at MinnTac. Anything to that effect would essentially be shutting down the whole Iron Range mining industry — something that would cripple domestic steelmaking, not to mention the Northern Minnesota economy. But what this story does, however, is further tie the political dust-up over proposed new copper and nickel mines like PolyMet to the iron mining industry, and not to the benefit of the iron mining industry.

Speaking as a lifelong resident of the Range, there was nothing as ubiquitous as the taconite mines growing up. Even when they were shut down or laid off workers, they were the gravitational force of the world around me. In more recent years it has helped me understand the starts and stops, leaps and lurches of the mines to consider them as just certain kinds of companies in a complicated global economy. This economy is then further balanced against pressures to conserve water and air for future generations in the face of clear human impact on the global environment.

Unfortunately, for many in this region, leaving the thinking that “the mines will take care of us” is hard to do. As such, when news like this comes down, the reaction is shrill, divisive and universally disdainful of the environment and even the general concept of regulation. I expect that will be the continued tone as coverage of this news reaches the mainstream. The result, however, will likely be the same: a better tailings basin at a more resilient taconite mine that employers fewer people due to automation.

UPDATE: I’ve corrected the post to reflect the fact that MinnTac wasn’t the first taconite mine in Northern Minnesota, Reserve Mining in Babbitt was. MinnTac is nevertheless one of the original taconite plants in the region and its longevity is what opens it to this new scrutiny.


  1. Kathryn Hoffman says

    All of the taconite mines in Minnesota have environmental concerns, but none are greater than Minntac, whose monstrous 8000 acre tailings basin becomes more polluted each year as US Steel pumps out the water, uses it for processing, and returns it, carrying even more pollutants, back to the basin. Cleaning up the tailings basin to the point where it isn’t polluting nearby waters will take an impressive act of will by regulators, and a significant investment from US Steel. I hope they are up for it.

  2. It’s interesting that the Range interests pounding the table for sulfide ore mining, saying “we know how to do it…” etc, don’t seem to lift a finger for effective regulation of existing mining operations. This pretty much zeros out their credibility.

    I doubt that a single large mining operation in Minnesota is truly in compliance with the basic federal environmental laws. One can point to many examples of scandalous negligence by the MPCA and by the DNR, but the root cause is obviously political.

  3. As always with EPA who is going to decide what parts per million is considered safe and are they willing to work with Minntac? Folks go to their corners on the EPA, some feel they have a voice and friend with EPA looking out for them. Others feel the EPA is a group of environmental advocates who are anti business. No matter which side you are on, there is no denying the EPA has the power to shape the Range.

  4. Dubiously reductionist – environmental advocates don’t default to anti-business.

  5. Maybe not in your world but being in business the past 40 yrs they certainly did in mine.

  6. So the regulations are a cost of doing business in a fair and balanced system . They better be , as their absence means things have devolved into some kind of end-game resource nationalism . Part of what makes America great is maintaining citizens’ meaningful access to natural public lands Good luck with trying to socialize environmental ruin .

  7. .

  8. And no, corporations aren’t citizens .

  9. What does taxing/regulating the logging industry outta business have to do with access to public lands? The Greenies use the EPA to stop logging on Fed land with the spotted owl as their issue. Years later it came out that logging didn’t disturb the spotted owl but the logging stopped. Talk to the few logging companies that are still in business in the Arrowhead and ask them if the EPA is pro business. We are an over regulated country and everyone who has started a business knows it. I’ve been involved in many and the burden of regulation and taxes is overwhelming.

  10. Of course the mines and any industry want clean water. There is not an industry in the USA that is not being checked steady by multiple agencies. The problem occurs when the regulations change from yr to yr. When you are running a business it is impossible to project the costs of compliance as the regulations change. A good friend of mine had to sell his small trucking business because the retro fitting his brand new Diesel engines would have bankrupted him. He had just bought new engines that were good for 100,000’s of miles and had 1yr to comply to the new regulations. I know nobody cares about the business man but 15 workers lost their jobs when he sold his small fleet of trucks.

    • Kathryn Hoffman says

      Ironically, the problem for Minntac is that their permit HASN’T been updated. They have a Clean Water Act permit that expired in 1992, and since then, their pollution problems have gotten much worse, but their permit hasn’t been updated to reflect those problems. As a result, they need to make some significant changes just to come into compliance with laws that have been in existence for many, many years.

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