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."

Regulation roadblock

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