Bill weakens rules on mining pollution in wild rice-inhabited waters

Wild Rice
In a file photo, Joe Hoagland, left, pushes a canoe through a wild rice bed in White Earth, Minn., as 14-year-old Chris Salazar learns how to harvest the rice by knocking the grain off the stalks with two sticks.
Jim Mone/Associated Press

High-profile mining projects proposed for northern Minnesota are prompting a fight at the Legislature over water quality rules for wild rice.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has only recently begun enforcing a law, on the books for nearly 40 years, that limits how much sulfate can go into waters where wild rice is found. Officials say the MPCA didn't enforce the rule for much of that time because the agency didn't have evidence that sulfates from iron mines or any other operations were entering lakes and streams.

Prompted by industry, members of Legislature are trying to put a stop to the agency's enforcement of the law. It began applying the standard two years ago, when taconite plants on the Iron Range wanted to expand.

The discharges from copper-nickel mines several companies want to build in the area are expected to have an even higher level of sulfate than taconite mines.

Members of Ojibwe bands in Minnesota have long complained that stands of wild rice are declining in many areas, and they suspect it's because of pollution from sulfates. Research shows that, over time, sulfates can kill wild rice beds.

A provision in a bill at the Legislature would stop the pollution control agency from enforcing any rule that would limit how much sulfate can go in the water until a new study is done about how much sulfate the wild rice can tolerate.

Mike Robertson, a consultant for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the research will take at least two years, and companies shouldn't have to spend a lot of money to meet a goal that might change.

"How can they design and implement treatment technologies when they don't know what the standard will be?" asked Robertson, who is coordinating industry response to the sulfate problem.

The MPCA already has the study underway. The agency's assistant commissioner for water policy, Rebecca Flood, said has heard the message loud and clear that the Legislature is impatient.

"We understand that this is a time-sensitive issue, and we're trying to move forward as best we can," Flood said. "We're happy to work with them to try to figure out, is there a path forward."

There are at least three legislative provisions on wild rice aimed at clearing environmental hurdles for mines and other industry.

One would raise the wild rice standard to 250 milligrams per liter of water, a guideline set by the federal government for drinking water, based on taste and odor. Wild rice, rooted in the mud of lakes and rivers, is more susceptible than people are to some harmful effect of sulfate.

That proposed standard of 250 is a terrible idea, according to John Hottinger, a former legislator who spoke for the Sierra Club at the committee hearing.

He said the legislature is trying to weaken an important environmental protection.

"It's a flagrant and transparent effort to do this by legislation 25 times higher than the current standard, which will dramatically reduce environmental protection, and it's being done frankly to allow some projects with high risks to get established under very permissive reduced standards," Hottinger said.

But mines may not be the only operations that could be affected if the MPCA continues to enforce a sulfate standard for wild rice.

Robertson testified Tuesday that about 230 industrial facilities and 385 municipal wastewater treatment plants produce enough sulfates to be covered by the rule.