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EPA agrees to probe how state agency regulates iron mining

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to investigate allegations by an environmental advocacy group that a state agency is failing to meet its responsibility to regulate iron mining companies, the advocacy group said.

The environmental group WaterLegacy filed the petition with the EPA in July, saying the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency failed to meet the responsibilities that the EPA has delegated to it for enforcing the Clean Water Act when it comes to iron mining companies. The EPA recently sent WaterLegacy attorney Paula Maccabee and MPCA Assistant Commissioner Rebecca Flood a draft protocol for its investigation. The EPA has also started a web page for documents pertaining to the investigation.

Maccabee said Tuesday that the draft protocol shows that the EPA is taking her group’s concerns “very seriously.” Unless the MPCA can show it has the will and ability to control water pollution from its existing iron mining facilities, she said, the state should not approve the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine, which she said carries far greater risks.

The EPA has delegated authority for enforcing federal clean water standards to many states, including Minnesota, including the issuance of permits. The federal agency says it periodically reviews the work of the states and makes recommendations for improvements to ensure fair and consistent enforcement and compliance programs.

The draft protocol, dated Dec. 30, details how the EPA plans to conduct the investigation. Among other things, EPA staffers will review files and interview MPCA staffers in St. Paul and Duluth later this year. The EPA said it would also review whether laws enacted by the Legislature impede the MPCA’s ability to protect waters where wild rice grows.

MPCA officials said they regard the document as procedural.

“Our work is regularly under review and critique by the EPA,” Flood said in a statement. “They will determine the credibility of these assertions and if they need exploration we will fully participate in that discussion. Until EPA makes that determination, we will say that we are confident in our permitting and regulatory work to protect air, water, land and human health in Minnesota.”

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