Iron Range rebellion halted wild rice initiative

  • Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY , Star Tribune staff writer
  • Updated: April 7, 2014 - 10:06 AM

Gov. Mark Dayton and top state pollution officials abruptly reversed a decision to publicly affirm a long-standing and highly contentious water-quality rule designed to protect wild rice after Iron Range legislators intervened in late February, according to internal records and e-mails.

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Sept. 21, 2013; near Emily, Minn., Rod Ustipak of Baxter, Minn., poles his canoe through a thick stand of wild rice on a small in north-central Minnesota on the waterfowl opener. Ustipak heads the state's wild rice restoration program.

Photo: Doug Smith/Star Tribune,

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Gov. Mark Dayton and top state pollution officials abruptly reversed a decision to publicly affirm a long-standing and highly contentious water-quality rule designed to protect wild rice after Iron Range legislators intervened in late February, according to internal records and e-mails.

The sudden scramble, which left observers puzzled at the time, provides an unusual close-up look at the intense political, economic and environmental stakes in the three-year fight over protecting Minnesota’s most beloved plant from pollutants generated by mining and other industries.

For now, the stringent rule is on the books, but its future is still uncertain.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) was set to announce Feb. 27 that, after three years of debate and $1.5 million in taxpayer-paid research, it would issue a preliminary recommendation that the 40-year-old rule protecting wild rice “was reasonable and should remain in effect,” according to documents obtained by the Star Tribune under public records laws.

But the announcement was postponed at the last minute, and that recommendation never saw the light of day.

Instead, two weeks later, Commissioner John Linc Stine said the MPCA needed to conduct further studies, bring in outside experts to review the science and engage the public in discussions about the impacts.

In an interview last week, Stine said he changed course in response to “frustrated” legislators who feared that even a preliminary recommendation by his agency would have a major chilling affect on mining firms and other employers important to their districts.

Stine also said that the more muted tone the agency adopted was intended to do a better job of explaining the complicated balancing act between taconite and wild rice.

State scientists have not changed their view that, at least so far, the scientific research supports the current wild rice standard, he said.

‘Very sensitive issue’

“We just wanted to get it right,” Dayton said in a separate interview. “It is a very sensitive issue, here and up there.”

Iron Range legislators who raised the issue with the governor say that the potential economic impacts of the rule go far beyond the taconite industry and could cost cities, breweries and food processing plants millions of dollars to comply.

But their biggest fear, they said, is that the out-of-state corporations who own the mines would find Minnesota inhospitable, and decide to go elsewhere.

“These companies have no profound loyalty to any one area of the world,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township.

Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with nonprofit law firm Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said that furious reaction hides a quiet environmental victory for wild rice.

At this point, she said, the state’s environmental standard remains in place because the state’s research supports it.

“And this is science,” she said. “Not democracy.”

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