Iron Range lawmakers, wild rice interests frustrated by agency's moves on sulfate study

Wild rice
Harvesters gathered this approximately 50 pound load of wild rice from Birch Lake on Sept 20, 2013, considered one of the best wild rice lakes on the Fond du Lac Indian reservation.
Dan Kraker / MPR News

Several Iron Range lawmakers expressed frustration this week with the amount of information the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was sharing with them about its latest study on the state's sulfate standard for wild rice.

The lawmakers met with MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine on Wednesday, a day before the agency was scheduled to release its recommendations on whether to change the state's 10 milligrams/liter sulfate limit for wild rice producing waters. Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, described the tone of the meeting as "difficult," saying lawmakers had been reading media reports on the wild rice study suggesting the science confirms that sulfate can hurt wild rice.

"Obviously our region is interested in what's coming out and the science, and overall we weren't provided any information at the meeting and had more information in the Star Tribune," Metsa said in an interview Friday.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said the media reports differed from his reading of the study, which he said raises questions about whether the state should even have a sulfate standard for wild rice.

"Knowing what we knew about the report made it even more frustrating," he said of the media reports. "The fact that the one group of legislators that it would affect was not informed beforehand was a little bit of a concern."

The state's wild rice sulfate rule is 40 years old, but it wasn't until 2010 that the MPCA began requiring mining companies in northern Minnesota to keep track of wild rice in places where they discharge wastewater.

That action eventually led to this latest study on the impact sulfate has on wild rice. The study was released nearly two months ago, but it isn't clear how the MPCA plans to incorporate the results into public policy.

Metsa said the lawmakers received an email later Wednesday letting them know the MPCA was postponing the release of the new sulfate recommendations.

Agency officials, who also sent email notification to reporters, said they weren't ready to release the information and would provide an update "in the coming weeks."

In response to an inquiry from MPR News, Stine said Friday in a statement that his agency will continue to engage interested parties, including the Iron Range delegation, on the sulfate issue.

"We're sorry they were frustrated," he said. "The dialogue on wild rice sulfate is only beginning."

Iron Range lawmakers were not the only group questioning the MPCA's handling of the sulfate issue.

In an email to MPCA staff on Thursday, Bob Shimek, a tribal activist who was on the agency's advisory committee on the issue, said he wanted more explanation. Environmentalists and tribal groups have been urging the MPCA to enforce the current 10 mg/L standard.

"I put in the time, weeks, months, years, to do my part and get us to this point," Shimek wrote. "Here we all are, anticipating the release of the preliminary findings on a schedule we all concurred with, and we are delayed weeks. Why?"

It isn't clear what, if any, impact the delay will have, but some environmentalists have noted the March 13 deadline for public comments on the environmental study for PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine, saying they had hoped to cite the MPCA's latest findings on sulfate in comments.

Even if the MPCA releases its sulfate recommendations soon, the issue is unlikely to be resolved quickly. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce — which sued the agency in the past over the standard and has stressed the expensive upgrades industries and wastewater treatment plants would have to make under a strict standard — released an analysis of the MPCA's study saying it shows a sulfate standard is unnecessary.

But one of the study's lead researchers, John Pastor, contends the data show even low levels of sulfate under the right conditions can lead to toxic hydrogen sulfide, which kills wild rice.