US Magnesium avoided paying millions for alleged air quality infractions and gave big donations to Utah lawmakers

The mineral extractor received at least 30 violations, from spewing excess toxic chlorine into the Wasatch Front’s airshed to delaying tests.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) US Magnesium, seen across the Great Salt Lake from Stansbury Island on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

After a decade of violations, US Magnesium settled with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in the fall of 2023, accepting a penalty some regulators said was too lenient.

The deal came soon after the mineral extractor’s parent company made a sizeable donation to Gov. Spencer Cox.

The Utah Air Quality Board approved the negotiation on Sept. 12 in a 5-2 vote. Four days earlier, on Sept. 8, campaign finance disclosures show The Renco Group gave Cox’s campaign $50,000. It was one of the largest cash campaign contributions the governor received in 2023, when he took in a total of $1.5 million in donations.

New York-based Renco is a holding company with subsidiaries involved in mining and manufacturing, including US Magnesium.

The governor appoints members to the Air Quality Board, who serve in unpaid volunteer roles. He also appoints the director of DEQ.

“Beyond appointing members, the governor has no authority over the Air Quality Board or its decisions and has had no conversations about the settlement,” a spokesperson for Cox wrote in an email. “Likewise, the governor has no control over who chooses to contribute to his campaign.”

Representatives with Renco did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson with DEQ emphasized that its Air Quality Board is an independent body that makes air quality rules and authorizes settlements.

“Anything apart from appointing board members is outside the limitations of the Office of the Governor,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Neither the Governor nor his representatives had conversations with DEQ regarding the US Magnesium settlement.”

Several board members confirmed they did not receive any communication or pressure from the governor’s office to approve the settlement.

US Magnesium diverts water from the Great Salt Lake into solar evaporation ponds in Tooele County, where it concentrates the brine to extract magnesium chloride. Its Rowley plant refines the material into pure magnesium, a critical mineral used in a variety of products from car parts to soda cans. The process produces corrosive waste and toxic emissions.

DEQ’s Division of Air Quality has dinged US Magnesium with at least 30 violations since 2013. Five of the claimed violations harmed the environment, DEQ staff noted, and included releases of hydrochloric acid, chlorine and particulate pollution into the Wasatch Front airshed that exceeded the company’s permitted limits.

Other alleged violations involved administrative errors, missing reports and failure to run required tests on things like diesel engine emissions, pollution scrubbers and smokestack releases. US Magnesium deliberately delayed at least one of these tests past a mandated deadline so the company could save $10,000, court records show.

DEQ filed numerous complaints against the company in 3rd District Court starting in September 2017. The state has the authority to issue penalties of up to $10,000 per day for each violation, the department confirmed.

In May 2023, DEQ staff approached the Air Quality Board with a proposed settlement. The company agreed to pay $413,772 rather than let a judge decide the penalty, meeting minutes show. Board members raised questions about US Magnesium’s history of evading and delaying air quality requirements. A staff member acknowledged the extractor had a “large list” of violations, including older incidents dismissed in court due to the statute of limitations.

Air Quality Board member Kevin Cromar, a clinical associate professor of environmental medicine at New York University Grossman School of Medicine, noted the seriousness of US Magnesium’s alleged violations and motioned against approving the settlement. The board unanimously agreed to return it to DEQ for more revisions.

The settlement came up again with a slightly higher penalty at the September meeting. Cromar raised concerns that the relatively low amount US Magnesium agreed to pay would still not dissuade it from committing violations in the future.

“Civil penalties for environmental violations aren’t intended to compensate for damages,” Cromar said in an email when asked for comment, “but rather have a primary purpose to serve as a deterrent so that there is no economic incentive for noncompliance.”

If left to a judge to decide, the penalty for US Magnesium’s multiple violations could potentially total millions of dollars, said Assistant Attorney General Marina Thomas, who has represented DEQ in the dispute.

“Is that a realistic outcome?” Thomas told the board at the September meeting. “Maybe, maybe not.”

DEQ staff noted the time and resources that would be siphoned from the state if it were to continue fighting US Magnesium in court. They added the company had opted to dedicate part of its penalty payment to the Environmental Mitigation and Response Fund so DEQ could use the money for air quality improvements, like buying a fleet of electric buses for the Uintah School District.

Michael Zody, an attorney for US Magnesium, said the company agreed to pay the largest settlement DEQ has seen in five years.

“So $430,000 is no inconsequential amount,” Zody said at the meeting. “This is a serious settlement.”

Board member Jeff Silvestrini, who is mayor of Millcreek, joined Cromar in voting against the agreement. He asked about applying a consent decree to US Magnesium — an order that would enact stiffer penalties or restrictions if the company kept flouting air quality regulations. The majority of board members declined and approved the settlement with no stipulations.

“My principal concern was that I didn’t ... have enough information to evaluate whether the settlement was reasonable,” Silvestrini said in an interview, “given the extent of the violations.”

He said government councils and public bodies typically go into closed session to discuss legal issues like the US Magnesium settlement so they can hash out details with their attorneys without the opposing party present.

Silvestrini said he was asked to join the Air Quality Board by Gov. Cox shortly before the September meeting. He says he didn’t face any pressure over how to vote on the US Magnesium penalty.

“I’m not of same political party as governor, but I respect him a great deal,” Silvestrini said. “Nobody tried to influence me on this.”

Board members Kim Frost, who is also the executive director of Utah Clean Air Partnership, Randal Martin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Utah State University, and John Rasband, who represents manufacturing interests, responded to email queries and also said they did not receive any pressure or communication from the governor’s office regarding the settlement.

Three other board members — who represent the petroleum industry, mining industry and Uinta County — did not respond to requests for comment.

In his email, Cromar said he would like to see Renco and US Magnesium direct more resources toward reducing their environmental impact.

“I wish we had fewer companies that pay outlandish sums for politicians and lawyers,” he wrote. “It would be nice if they invested in solving problems instead of spending to cover them up.”

Following the money

A federal study issued in 2023 found US Magnesium was responsible for up to 25% of the smog Wasatch Front residents inhale during summer ozone events and winter inversions. Lawmakers passed a bill to study the issue.

Cox did, however, ask the Environmental Protection Agency to expand a regional nonattainment zone in late February 2023 so it includes the US Magnesium plant. The move would allow state regulators to impose tougher restrictions on the company’s emissions.

Renco’s donation to the governor came about six months later. Campaign disclosures show The Renco Group also donated $2,000 to Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, days after he became House speaker in November. It donated $2,000 to Senate President Stuart Adams’s leadership PAC the same month. It gave another $1,000 each to Reps. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs; Bridger Bolinder, R-Grantsville; Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele; and Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, over the fall.

It does not appear the company has made any other political contributions in Utah since 2020.

Lawmakers have scolded certain mineral extractors operating on the Great Salt Lake in recent months, with Compass Minerals in particular drawing their furor. They complain the companies aren’t paying fair royalty rates for the minerals they mine from lake brine. They also claim the industry isn’t doing enough to help the lake reach a healthy elevation. Compass abandoned its plans to extract lithium due to forthcoming reforms drafted by state lawmakers.

US Magnesium has largely avoided legislators’ latest public reprimands, even though it attempted to extend its intake canals in 2022 and keep pumping away the Great Salt Lake’s record-low water.

Salt Lake Tribune political correspondent Bryan Schott contributed to this report.

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