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Regulators stand behind controversial wild rice rule

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Wild rice seeds float on the St. Louis River.
Wild rice seeds float on the St. Louis River shortly after being thrown by Conservation Corps workers Tuesday, September 13, 2016 in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2016

State lawmakers have introduced bills to kill it. A state administrative law judge has rejected it. Industry and environmental groups oppose it.

Yet the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is standing behind its proposed changes to a 45-year-old water quality standard — one that's never really been enforced — that's designed to protect the iconic wild rice plant.

At issue is a water quality standard Minnesota adopted in 1973 that limits how much sulfate can be discharged by wastewater treatment plants, iron ore mines, paper mills, or other facilities, into waters where wild rice grows.

After environmental groups and Indian tribes pressured regulators to enforce the standard, the state Legislature asked the MPCA to study the rule and see if it needed changes.

Last year, the agency proposed replacing the fixed standard with a complex, flexible formula that would determine the appropriate standard for each lake or stream.

In January, administrative law judge LauraSue Schlatter said the agency had failed to demonstrate that the new standard would be any more protective of wild rice waters than the old one.

In a 286-page response delivered to the judge Wednesday, the agency did make some changes to its proposed rule to address some of the judge's concerns.

But in general the agency stood by its approach to develop a flexible standard that could be tailored to each individual water body where wild rice grows, where sulfate is discharged.

"An equation-based standard is appropriate, and it is flexible, and it's something we use across our water quality standards," said MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. He added that many other states use equations as the basis for water quality standards.

The administrative law judge will now review the agency's report, said Stine. The agency will wait for her feedback before deciding how to proceed.

Options include making additional changes to the standard based on the judge's response, attempting to implement a rule over the judge's objections, or dropping the proposed rulemaking altogether.

Meanwhile, bills have been introduced at the Legislature to kill both the MPCA's current proposal and the original standard adopted in 1973.

Both environmental and tribal groups, as well as industry groups, have objected to the MPCA's proposed changes, although for different reasons.

Industry officials believes it could impose crippling costs on the industry if it forces facilities to comply with a strict sulfate standard.

Environmental groups and Indian tribes don't believe the new proposal adequately protects wild rice. They argue for sticking with the current rule.

"I've never found a rule that is a popularity contest," said the MPCA's Stine. He acknowledged it's a highly contentious proposed rule, because of the potential impacts on industry, communities, and an important biological and cultural resource.

But despite its lack of political support, he expressed confidence in the proposed standard. "This rulemaking will protect wild rice," he said.