Minnesotans are thoughtful, practical people. We exercise due diligence before making sweeping decisions that impact our communities. Forthcoming action from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) on Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard should be no different. That’s why the Iron Ore Alliance — a joint initiative of the United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel — is pleased that new information is available that definitively shows that the current standard is not supported by science.
Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard has received considerable scrutiny in recent years — and rightly so. For those unfamiliar with this issue, sulfate is a naturally occurring compound, but it is also created as a byproduct of taconite mining operations and wastewater treatment plants. The current standard, prohibiting more than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) in wild rice waters, was implemented in 1973 based on research conducted prior to World War II. Keep in mind that even drinking water contains safe sulfate levels up to 250 mg/L.
This sulfate standard is the only regulation of its kind in the country, and it has never been consistently enforced in Minnesota. Why? Because wild rice often grows well in waters containing sulfate levels greater than 10 mg/L, and the treatment technology required to meet this questionable standard could have a negative economic impact on communities throughout our state — not just mining communities on the Iron Range.
To be clear, we understand and appreciate the perspective of Minnesotans who depend on the health of wild rice for economic and cultural reasons. But recent state-funded research confirmed that wild rice is not affected by sulfate until levels reach up to 1,600 mg/L — levels far beyond the current standard. Following this conclusion, the MPCA recommended additional, more thorough research about the impact of sulfide — the byproduct created when sulfate mixes with sediment where wild rice is rooted. Thankfully, the scientific data on sulfide we previously lacked is now available.
From the 1940s to the present, scientists and regulators have been in agreement that if sulfur impacted wild rice, it would happen during the early life stages of the plant. A new study conducted by Fort Environmental Laboratories found that sulfide is not toxic to wild rice seedlings at levels that typically exist in Minnesota wild rice waters. Fort Environmental Laboratories is one of the best environmental toxicology laboratories in the country. Its study followed MPCA recommendations, and the results were audited and certified in accordance with Good Laboratory Practice criteria.
This new, unbiased, scientific evidence confirms what we have suspected for some time: Minnesota’s current wild rice sulfate standard is bad policy — and it’s the wrong direction for our state. The potential for Minnesota businesses and communities to suffer economic hardship because of a regulation not supported by science is deeply concerning. However, the public has the ability to make a difference.
The MPCA is accepting public comments about the sulfate standard until Friday. We urge readers to submit their thoughts via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let the MPCA know that 10 mg/L is wrong and that any regulation must be based on sound scientific data.
John Rebrovich is assistant to the director of United Steelworkers District 11 and is co-chair of the Iron Ore Alliance. Chris Masciantonio is general manager of governmental affairs at United States Steel Corp. and is co-chair of the Iron Ore Alliance.