Hearings begin on wild rice rule

Harvesting wild rice
Aaron Thompson, 15, and Will Gagnon, 16, pull their way across Hole-in-the-Day Lake to harvest wild rice, on Aug. 28, 2015.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News 2015

Public hearings on a proposed new rule designed to protect wild rice from sulfate pollution discharged from wastewater treatment plants, taconite mines and other industry get underway in St. Paul on Monday.

It's a complicated, seemingly arcane rule that nonetheless has generated intense scrutiny in northern Minnesota. On one side, business and labor groups argue it could devastate the region's economy. On the other, environmental groups and Indian tribes say it doesn't do enough to protect water quality and the iconic plant.

The rule has been under the political microscope for years.

An original rule that limited sulfate discharge into wild rice waters in Minnesota has been on the books since the 1970s, but was never enforced.

When tribes and others began pressuring the state to begin enforcing the rule, the Legislature funded research to determine whether the science behind the original standard was justified.

After several delays, earlier this year the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency unveiled a proposed new, flexible rule, that would calculate a separate standard for each wild rice lake, based on that water body's unique water and sediment chemistry, where sulfate is discharged.

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The proposed rule faces criticism from all sides. Business and labor groups in northern Minnesota say it's based on flawed science and could shut down mines and impose multimillion dollar costs on city wastewater treatment plants.

"It's all for something that they can't point to any evidence will help wild rice, which I think is not ... a very logical approach from the science to the economics to the benefits to the plant," said Arik Forsman with Better in our Backyard, a group of young professionals who support mining, pipelines and other development proposals in northern Minnesota.

But environmental groups and Indian tribes have also voiced concerns about the proposed rule.

The state proposal, "though it superficially makes sense, doesn't really make sense in protecting the wild rice resource, said Paula Maccabee with WaterLegacy. She said "it would not only be expensive and take years to develop, but it wouldn't actually protect the abundance or sustainability of wild rice."

Maccabee said the state should instead stick with the old rule, which imposed a flat rule, that would be easy to enforce and protect the sensitive plant from water pollution.

State regulators plan to hold six public hearings across the state, culminating with a statewide videoconference on Nov. 2 The public comment period ends Nov. 22.