MPCA warns lower water standards could lead to federal oversight

Larry Southerland, U.S. Steel
Larry Southerland, the general manager for U.S. Steel's Minnesota ore operations, told the committee, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, that the current water standard aimed at protecting wild rice is too strong.
Tom Scheck | MPR News

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials warned Tuesday that a bipartisan push at the Capitol to ease state water pollution standards could lead the federal government to assert control of water rules.

In a bid to help U.S. Steel's MinnTac plant in Mountain Iron, some lawmakers say they believe Minnesota's sulfate standard designed to protect wild rice is too strict. They say mining companies, power companies and wastewater treatment plans would be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to meet the standards.

State Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, wants the MPCA to delay enforcing the standard until a scientific review is complete and the state identifies which lakes and streams grow wild rice.

"The industry and municipalities need predictability," Melin said at a meeting of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee. "And unfortunately when they don't even know what's a wild rice water, it's really hard for them to plan their treatment facilities."

Rebecca Flood, assistant commissioner for the MPCA, said the agency intends to release both of those items by late March. But Flood said Melin's bill could result in a bigger problem for the industry if the federal Environmental Protection Agency steps in and strips the MPCA of its oversight power.

"By adopting this bill, we anticipate that one of the unintended consequences is that EPA is going to then want to look at every one of the permits that we issue and may potentially say they conflict with federal law," Flood said. "Now we have to hold those and address their issues and their concerns with each and every permit."

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The state's sulfate standard has been in law since 1973 but hasn't been enforced until the last few years. It requires companies to not discharge any water with sulfate levels exceeding 10 milligrams per liter into any wild rice waters. Business groups are spearheading the argument that the standard is too tough. U.S. Steel executives say complying with the standard would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

U.S. Steel environmental director Chrissy Bartovich also downplayed the notion that the EPA would step in to enforce the existing standard.

"EPA always has the ability to comment on a permit so that's nothing new," Bartovich said. "They comment on permits all the time so that's not really concerning as long as the MPCA is following the protocol under the Clean Water Act, there's nothing for the EPA to comment on."

When asked what sulfate standard U.S. Steel could support, Bartovich didn't specify except to say "not 10."

Officials with the EPA did not respond to messages asking whether they would step in to oversee the enforcement.

Several Native Americans urged the committee to keep the existing standard in place. Winona LaDuke, of the White Earth Ojibwe Band, said wild rice is critical to Indian Tribes in Minnesota.

Winona LaDuke at the hearing on water standards.
Winona LaDuke (right) at the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee hearing, Feb. 24, 2015.
Tom Scheck | MPR News

"I would like to live in a state where native people are respected. I would like to live in a state where native people do not have to come to the Legislature every time someone has something that will be so destructive to our people," LaDuke said. "I would like to live in a state where policy makers respect native people and we do not have to make such sojourns for such frivolous and ridiculous proposals."

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee did not take action on the bill. But its chair, state Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said the committee will act on the bill soon.

"We need to move forward. We can't have people just kick the can or get cold feet and not do things," McNamara said. "This is a tough issue but the implications for wastewater treatment plants in Fairmont, Minnesota are significant and serious. We need to find something that works."

The Legislature is considering several other water bills including one requiring an analysis of the costs and benefits of any new water quality rule.