On January 27, 2014, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision affirming a determination by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that no environmental impact statement (EIS) was required for an expansion of U.S. Steel’s Minntac Mine, a taconite mining and processing operation in Mountain Iron, Minnesota. In re Minntac Mine Extension Project in Mountain Iron, St. Louis County, 2014 WL 274077 (Minn. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2014).

U. S. Steel has two Minnesota Ore Operations on the Mesabi Iron Range: Minntac in Mt. Iron and Keetac in Keewatin (Source: www.ussteel.com)

U. S. Steel has two Minnesota ore operations on the Mesabi Iron Range: Minntac in Mt. Iron and Keetac in Keewatin (Source: http://www.ussteel.com)

The Minntac facility was scheduled to end operations and begin the post-mining reclamation process in 2015, but the proposed extension would extend the expected life of the facility through 2031. Relators, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), argued that DNR’s environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for the extension wrongly evaluated the potential environmental impacts of the mine extension by comparing them with existing environmental conditions at the mine site rather than with the reclamation process that would occur if the extension were not approved. The court rejected this argument as a conflation of the requirements for an EIS, which mandate consideration of alternatives including a “no action” alternative, with those for an EAW, which do not require an alternatives analysis.

The court also agreed with DNR that the environmental impacts of the mine extension would be limited by being “subject to mitigation by ongoing public regulatory authority,” Minn. R. 4410.1700, subp. 7(C), specifically, the authority of MPCA and DNR over Minntac’s NPDES permit and permit to mine. MCEA questioned the adequacy of the NPDES to minimize environmental impacts because Minntac was already out of compliance with several of the permit’s effluent limitations. However, the court noted that DNR reasonably concluded Minntac’s noncompliance was being adequately addressed through a schedule of compliance, and that any additional issues could be dealt with in the upcoming permit renewal process.

Finally, the court dismissed MCEA’s claim that DNR has an inherent conflict of interest because it is charged with both promoting mining and protecting the environment. Wrote the court, “the legislature has determined that it is appropriate for MDNR to balance these interests, and we will defer to that decision.”