A recent article, “EPA warns state on mine pit oversight” (Jan. 11), lacked important context.
Decades ago, many of our nation’s waterways were in a state of crisis. The beneficial uses associated with clean water — such as drinking, swimming and fishing — were threatened. The Clean Water Act acted as a catalyst for change, and through years of applied science and engineering — along with the diligent efforts of regulators, industry and municipalities — incredible progress was made toward restoring our nation’s waters. By applying sound science and policy to regulatory decisions, and setting water-quality standards for the right uses at the specific body of water, the environmental movement was on its way to a promising future.
But then a strange divergence occurred. Instead of continuing to rely on sound science and rational discussion, some of today’s environmentalists seem focused on individual interest-group agendas, all too often opting for dramatic messaging instead of science-based accuracy.
The article referenced reports on claims about the effect of sulfate on wild rice, leading the reader to conclude that elevated sulfate caused the elimination of wild rice in a lake near the mine pit. However, this effect likely was caused by other factors, such as an increase in water elevation (to which wild rice can be especially vulnerable). Also left unsaid is that studies show wild rice thrives in certain bodies of water where the sulfate level is much higher than the existing standard. Still unknown is the potential impact of sulfide, which differs from sulfate, on wild rice.
It’s also important to note that this is not just a mining issue. Almost every municipal wastewater treatment facility in Minnesota could face challenges meeting the current 10-milligrams-per-liter (mg/L) sulfate standard; many of those facilities discharge to waters that contain wild rice. The cost of treatment to meet the 10 mg/L standard could run in the millions of dollars, costs that will be borne by the polluters.
In this case, those polluters are the households that flush water down the drains — in other words, you and me.
When confronted by the conundrum of the average citizen causing pollution, there’s often an attempt to dismiss the issue. After all, a city can always receive an economic variance for the wastewater treatment facility, right? But an economic variance isn’t a free pass, it’s just a coupon, and sometimes it’s not worth a whole lot. The municipal treatment facilities could still spend millions upon millions of dollars per facility. And implicit in this approach is the confounding and contradictory policy that it could be OK if wild rice is harmed by a municipal facility, but not by an industrial facility.
Is any of this a good reason to disregard the sulfate standard? Of course not. But we need to talk about these issues honestly, and ensure that the science behind any standard is based on rigorous research with sound regulatory interpretation. After all, the actual goal in regulation is protecting the environment, not investing money in measures that don’t solve or prevent real problems.
The sulfate issue is hardly an isolated case. In today’s world, it is easier than ever to broadcast dramatic claims. And while selective use of information may make good headlines, this approach can be disingenuous, and if left unchecked may run up an enormous tab for measures that don’t deliver claimed benefits.
Rational discussion of complex scientific issues isn’t a great conduit for a snappy newspaper article or a good way to generate advocacy funding. But those rational discussions are essential if Minnesota is to continue to be one of the greatest states in the union, driving economic growth while protecting our incredible natural resources.
Kurt Anderson is manager of environmental and land management at Minnesota Power.