To protect wild rice, officials suggest new sulfate rule

Harvesting wild rice
A wild ricer propels a canoe through a wild rice bed with a long, forked pole.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is proposing a change to a long-standing but rarely enforced rule that aims to protect wild rice from sulfate, a pollutant released by iron ore mines, wastewater treatment plants and other industry.

A proposed change would institute a more flexible approach, determining what standard is necessary on a lake-by-lake or river-by-river basis. It would replace a 1973 flat limit on sulfate discharges.

The plan, announced Monday, is based on state-funded research that began in 2011. Scientists found that it's not actually sulfate that's harming wild rice. Rather, when that sulfate gets into the sediment where wild rice grows, bacteria can convert it to sulfide, which is toxic to wild rice.

The research also found that certain factors in the sediment can change how much sulfide is created. High levels of iron can lead to less sulfide, the agency said. High levels of carbon in the underwater muck can lead to more sulfide.

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The MPCA is proposing to plug iron and carbon measurements into a formula to determine a sulfate standard for each specific wild rice water, that limits the amount of sulfide present to 120 micrograms per liter — anything over that could harm wild rice, the agency determined. "We believe the changes we're proposing are an innovative and precise approach to protecting wild rice," said MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. "The proposal also allows for flexibility in permitting for facilities that discharge to wild rice waters." The state's original wild rice rule was based on work done in the 1930s and '40s that found wild rice did not grow well in waters with high concentrations of sulfate.

It was rarely enforced. But when Indian tribes and environmental groups began pressuring state regulators to enforce the rule when issuing water quality permits, mining companies and other industry argued it would cost millions of dollars to comply, and jeopardize their businesses and jobs.

The state Chamber of Commerce sued, but in 2012 a state appeals court upheld the standard.

State regulators have delayed enforcing the standard, however, until the research was completed and a new rule implemented.

As part of the proposal, the MPCA has also identified a list of 1,300 water bodies where wild rice is present, or which had wild rice as far back as 1975.

But that doesn't mean each of those water bodies will be subject to a new standard. Only about 250 to 350 of those wild rice waters are downstream from a factory or treatment plant or other facility that needs a water quality permit, said Shannon Lotthammer, environmental analysis and outcomes director with the MPCA.

She said it's still too early to know whether the new rule could lead to sulfate limits that are more or less restrictive for industry than the current rule.

"Where we have a critically important resource, and a pollutant that's very expensive to treat for, it's especially important to be as accurate as possible in developing our standards, and this proposal does that," she said.

But some Indian tribes and environmental groups are critical of the proposal, saying it doesn't do enough to protect wild rice, and would be difficult to enforce.

"Rather than create a new, unenforceable and scientifically indefensible equation, Minnesota regulatory agencies have to grow a backbone and enforce the wild rice sulfate rule as it is," said Paula Maccabee with the group WaterLegacy.

Others are concerned state regulators undercounted the number of wild rice waters in the state.

"They are discounting hundreds of water bodies that had been identified by the Department of Natural Resources as wild rice waters in a previous legislative-directed study on wild rice waters in Minnesota," said Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

PCA officials said they hope to get additional information on other wild rice waters to add to the list during the public comment period that runs through Nov. 9, but Schuldt said the process to add waters to the list once the rule is finalized is too onerous.

Meanwhile industry groups and legislators critical of the original sulfate standard also expressed concerns about the MPCA proposal.

The Iron Mining Association of Minnesota said it was surprised by the announcement, since earlier this year the state Legislature extended a deadline to complete the rule by a year until Jan. 1, 2019, to allow for the completion of an economic impact study.

Republican lawmakers were also surprised by the timing, and said any new standard should wait to be adopted until completion of that analysis.

"Simply put, the cost of complying with the MPCA's proposed revised standard could further devastate Minnesota's taconite mining industry," wrote House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other Republican leaders in a letter to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, wondered why Minnesota even needs to have a standard — it's the only one like it in the country. "Quite frankly the wild rice is growing," he said. "We have a bumper crop this year."

For Indian tribes, the concern is that wild rice, which plays a central role in Ojibwe cultural and religious identity, and in subsistence gathering, remain abundant in the long term in Minnesota, which harbors the most remaining natural stands of wild rice in the country.

"We feel that this is the last stronghold," said Schuldt. "And it's incumbent on all of us, not just the tribes, to protect this resource for future generations."