Northshore mine expansion to get environmental review

October 17, 2013

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will conduct an environmental assessment of Northshore Mining’s plans to expand its Peter Mitchell taconite iron ore mine near Babbitt, MN.

The Associated Press reported that the Duluth-based environmental group Save Our Sky Blue Waters had petitioned state regulators to conduct an Environmental Assessment Worksheet on the project, saying the expansion could be digging taconite iron ore out of a new area with rock that has a higher sulfide content. The groups said the higher sulfide content could lead to acid mine drainage off the site.

But in an Oct. 8 letter to the state Environmental Quality Board, the Minnesota DNR deemed the environmental group’s request moot because Cliffs Natural Resources, Northshore’s owner, in the meantime had requested that the DNR conduct a “discretionary EAW’’ on the expansion.
The DNR is obliged by state rules to conduct the review if the company proposing the project asks for it.

Sandy Karnowski, a spokeswoman for Cliffs, said the company wanted to work with the DNR on conservative progress for the operation.
“Northshore is seeking a permit amendment for its mine progression southward to mine reserves that are in our Life of Mine reserve.

Northshore Mining has worked with the Department of Natural Resources to develop a conservative mine plan for that progression. In response to stakeholder input, Northshore/Cliffs has decided to conduct a discretionary Environmental Assessment Worksheet with the DNR to address any questions about the permit amendment,” Karnowski told The Associated Press.

While acid mine runoff has been debated in this case and regarding Polymet’s proposed project near the Northshore Mine, the Associated Press reported that this could be first time that the sulfide level of iron-ore bearing rock is being raised in an official environmental review of an iron ore mine.

“It’s not necessarily the first time a taconite mine has dealt with the potential for acid mine drainage, but it’s the first environmental review that I’m aware of to address the problem,’’ said Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “We talk about sulfide (copper) mining versus taconite mining, but sometimes the line between the two is gray. Both, for instance, have significant problems with sulfate discharges.”

According to the DNR letter, the project would expand the existing open pit mine by 108 acres.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Court of Appeals is considering an appeal of a DNR decision against conducting a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement review of a proposed expansion of the Minntac taconite plant in Mountain Iron. The DNR determined earlier this year that the project needed only a lesser Environmental Assessment Worksheet because the project was simply an expansion of the mine with no change in emissions, tonnage produced or permit requirements.

But the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy disagreed, and the appeals court has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 14 to hear oral arguments on the case. The hearing will be held in Duluth.


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