Wild rice poses another obstacle to mine proposal

Wild Rice
People canoe through a lake to harvest wild rice by knocking the grain off the stalks with sticks.
Jim Mone/Associated Press

The controversial Polymet mining project proposal near Hoyt Lakes on the Iron Range has been under environmental review for years, in part because of the potential for sulfuric acid to contaminate area waters. But as review nears conclusion, some mine supporters are worried about another potential environmental roadblock: wild rice.

Minnesota has a 40-year-old standard that limits the amount of sulfate that gets into wild rice-producing waters. The current standard limits discharges to 10 milligrams per liter.

Polymet's proposed copper-nickel mine would create hundreds of jobs. Representative Chip Cravaack, R-Dist. 8, hosted a third "roundtable" meeting Friday in Duluth with supporters and regulators of the Polymet mining project.

DFL State Representative Tom Rukavina of Virginia thinks the discharge limit could be a challenge both to precious metal mines like Polymet, and iron ore mines that want to expand.

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"I don't know if they can meet it, and it's making me very nervous," Rukavina said.

Rukavina's bill to ease the standard failed in this year's legislative session, although lawmakers set aside $1.5 million to study whether the standard is still appropriate.

Rukavina said federal regulators say even if the state approved a new standard, it might not pass muster under the Clean Water Act.

Rukavina suggested Friday it might require federal legislation to change the standard. He said Cravaack, a Republican, was receptive to the idea. But Polymet spokeswoman Latisha Geitzen said the company doesn't need to change the standard.

"Polymet can meet the current sulfate standard. We have not been pushing to have the standard arbitrarily changed."

Gietzen said the company can meet the standard through a combination of technologies that capture and treat water at the mine. But some constituencies watch the situation warily.

The Fond du Lac reservation located downstream of Polymet on the St. Louis River has its own EPA-approved water quality standards that also set the sulfate limit in wild rice waters at 10 milligrams per liter.

The standard is fair, said Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Ojibwe band's environmental program. She said that technology exists for companies like Polymet to meet the standard.

"I think that ought to be considered part of the cost of doing business, if mining companies want to continue to make a profit on these mineral resources in the state of Minnesota, then they ought to be prepared to be good corporate neighbors and apply the most rigorous available technology," she said.

What concerns Schuldt is where exactly the standard will be applied; what the MPCA will consider as wild rice-producing waters. Frank Ongaro with the industry group Mining Minnesota said there's uncertainy in the wild rice standard, and that can be challenging to mining companies.

"I don't know if the word 'nervous' is right, but certainly concern of how this will all be handled at the various levels of government, from an entire industry standpoint," Ongaro said.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hosts its first meeting Monday to finalize research protocols for its wild rice research study. Meanwhile a draft of Polymet's Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be released in January. After it's reviewed by state and federal agencies and the company, it will be released to the public sometime after April.