Dayton vetoes wild rice bill, earning thanks from environmentalists

Posted 11:30 a.m. | Updated 5 p.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday vetoed a legislative attempt to put the brakes on regulations that could force the mining industry and municipal wastewater systems to invest in expensive treatment systems.

Minnesota's 45-year-old sulfate standard aimed at protecting wild rice has rarely been enforced. The Republican-led Legislature, with help from some DFLers, pushed through legislation that would have provided $500,000 for a work group to explore affordable solutions on how to protect wild rice from mining and wastewater discharge high in sulfate. But Dayton objected to provisions that would have prevented the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency from taking action on the standard.

Sulfate harms wild rice when, under certain conditions, it converts into toxic sulfide. Environmental groups and tribes have pushed for enforcement of the rule, saying reverse osmosis treatment works and should be implemented. But the mining industry has questioned the science that led to a sulfate standard, pointing out that wild rice has been found thriving in places where sulfate is high.

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Along with the veto, Dayton issued an executive order forming a task force similar to the one set up in the vetoed bill.

"It's an attempt to take what's a very controversial issue, one with very entangled, legitimate interests ... and find a way to work things out," Dayton said during a news conference, adding that the group's makeup would be more inclusive of Native American tribes than the one the Legislature proposed.

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups, praised the move.

“We should be continuing an inclusive conversation about how to leverage our resources to protect the future of our wild rice waters. By vetoing this bill, the governor has ensured that we can continue to have that discussion and work toward a long-term solution,” executive director Steve Morse said in a news release.

Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, who is not running for re-election, said the governor's veto gives her hope that a solution can be found after many years of no enforcement.

"Obviously it's not working, and in the meantime our waters are being harmed, wild rice has been harmed," she said. "It's the most meaningful step, I think, in a long time to address this problem."

But business groups and the lawmakers who worked on the legislation said they were disappointed in the veto and questioned whether the task force would accomplish anything meaningful. The governor has instructed the task force to report recommendations by Dec. 15, but new governor will take office in 2019.

Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said the makeup of the work group the bill proposed would have been more inclusive than the governor's, pointing out that all tribes were invited to nominate a participant. Lueck, the House author of the bill, said the governor's task force, in contrast, is made up of members Dayton will appoint.

"You'll have to be very careful and scrutinize their report," Lueck said. "That's why we insisted that at least half of that group be appointed by someone other than the governor."

The dispute will likely fall to the next governor, which adds uncertainty, said Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.

"For a permit holder, you want to know that if you're making an investment you're going to see clear, understandable and measurable results," she said. "The one thing many of us look for is some sort of certainty in the process. This is uncertainty, on top of uncertainty, on top of uncertainty."