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The 1973 pollution standard is based on decades-old research, which found that wild rice doesn’t grow in waters where concentrations of sulfate, a mineral salt, are higher than 10 parts per million. Minnesota is the only place where wild rice grows in abundance, now almost exclusively in the northeastern portion of the state. And it’s the only state with a rule on the books that protects it specifically from a pollutant that comes from taconite mining — also in the northeast.
Historically, the standard was seldom enforced — in part because sulfate was viewed as fairly benign and because no one was ever sure exactly what constituted a wild rice water protected by the rule, state officials say.
After concerns were raised by Indian tribes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, the MPCA decided to review the standard and signaled that it would consider enforcing it in future mining permits. But mining and industry groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, protested the state’s action, saying that enforcing it would cost cities, businesses and consumers millions of dollars. The chamber filed suit, ultimately losing its case at the appeals court level.
Meanwhile, the state commissioned several research studies to validate the 10 parts per million standard, and was ready to announce the conclusions at the end of February. They found that sulfate by itself doesn’t hurt wild rice. But when it gets down into the mud, microbes eat it and then it is converted to hydrogen sulfide — that familiar rotten egg smell — and is toxic to wild rice.
But Iron Range legislators brought the scheduled announcement to a sudden halt.
The eight legislators from the region met with Stine shortly before the public release and told him that the announcement could bring “threats of closing down the entire industry,” Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said Friday.
Hoffman said that would be unlikely. “Claims that regulation will bankrupt companies are as old as government itself,” she said.
But the governor’s office felt the pressure, too. “This is a big deal and it is blowing up this morning,” Jaime Tincher, Dayton’s chief of staff, said in a Feb. 26 e-mail to Stine.
“Agreed,” Stine responded. “The meeting with range legislators went poorly.”
“I heard,” she said. “We need to put together a plan.”
Over the next several days they did, according to documents and e-mail exchanges — one that would include the technical review, stakeholder summits and other steps that will likely continue until late this year or early next.
Tribes and environmental groups say enforcement of the state’s sulfate standard is already long overdue. Wild rice used to grow throughout the Upper Midwest and Ontario, and wild ricers and tribal members say the annual plant is increasingly harder to find in northeastern Minnesota.
The MPCA’s recommendations will still require an independent review by a panel of experts, in part because the Chamber of Commerce issued its own scientific report that says wild rice can withstand much higher concentrations of sulfate. But based on their preliminary findings, the MPCA’s scientists said the state’s sulfate standard should remain in effect — though there are still open questions about where it would apply and whether it could be applied seasonally.
Stine said he changed course at the last minute because everyone was focused on the number, even though the scientific analysis was just a turning point for the state to launch new deliberations over how to address the sulfate problem.
“We were asked, ‘Is 10 the number? Is that your decision?’ ” he said.
And it will still be months before that’s decided. “On these matters, the days of pounding the other side into submission is long gone,” said Anzelc. “Nobody wants to see wild rice … go away, including the mining companies.”
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394