New standards for MN mine delayed for wild rice study

Wild ricers
Wild ricers on the Fond du Lac Indian reservation come to the shore of Birch Lake on Sept. 20, 2013, near the end of the year's harvesting season.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2013

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is delaying the release of new environmental standards for U.S. Steel's taconite facility in Mountain Iron until a state study on sulfates and wild rice is released in late March.

U.S. Steel has been lobbying the Legislature to delay the implementation of a clean water standard aimed at protecting water where wild rice grows. The company contends that the existing state standard of preventing companies from discharging sulfates into wild rice water at levels higher than 10 milligrams of sulfates per liter is too strong.

MPCA officials have said U.S. Steel would need to meet the sulfate standard because there are two lakes that produce wild rice adjacent to the company's Minntac facility.

The agency had planned to release proposed standards for U.S. Steel's Minntac plant this month, but decided against it, MPCA spokesman Dave Verhasselt said.

As the Legislature required a wild rice study, he said, agency officials think it is best to release that report before new standards are issued.

"It would sort of be like trying to complete a recipe without a key ingredient," Verhasselt said. "The new recommendations going forward on wild rice are one of the key ingredients not only for the Minntac permit, but for other permits going forward."

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An attorney representing environmental groups was critical of the MPCA's decision but said she was not surprised by it.

"I don't see any reason to delay it," said Kathryn Hoffman of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "It's just another example of the MPCA failing to enforce the water quality standards already on the books."

But Verhasselt said the delay was necessary and that he expects the Minntac permit to be released in April.

"We realized that the wild rice recommendations play a critical role in some of the details in what the permit will call for," he said. "And because the wild rice recommendations are so close to being released we felt it was important to get those out first and then follow up shortly thereafter with releasing the draft permit on Minntac."

Sarah Cassella, a spokeswoman for U.S. Steel, said in a statement company officials look forward to reviewing the draft permit.

"U. S. Steel believes environmental standards, including the wild rice standard, should be based on sound science," Cassella said.