A bill that would water down Minnesota's wild rice pollution rules passed the House and Senate last week in a vote that reflects a fundamental shift in environmental philosophy at a Legislature now controlled by Republicans.

The zeal to change the wild rice water quality standard is driven in part by the allure of a resurgence of Minnesota's mining industry on the Iron Range. Supporters say the current standard imposes a heavy burden on business, and they are unwilling to wait for ongoing research to provide better guidance.

"It does not make sense for major expenditures of capital to be made to comply with a standard that we know is subject to change in the near term," said Mike Robertson, an environmental consultant for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

But environmentalists charge that the bill, which dictates a fivefold increase in sulfate limits for wild rice, is just one example of a Republican preference for business interests over both clean water and environmental science.

Last week the Legislature also approved language that establishes a two-year freeze on the development of new state water pollution standards, loosens restrictions on algae-producing phosphorus in Lake Pepin and halts a multiyear project to devise uniform management rules along an important stretch of the Mississippi River between Dayton, Minn., and Hastings.

"We've never seen this kind of multipronged assault on our water protections," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, an umbrella group for about 80 environmental nonprofits.

Those provisions come on top of a plan to cut state spending on environmental and natural resources by $40 million over the next two years.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said the spending cuts reflect tough choices and the need to set priorities while ensuring the overall health of the state's natural resources.

But the loosening of water quality rules is likely to prompt a veto by Gov. Mark Dayton, who has complained that they are unrelated provisions inserted into bills setting out the state budget.

Morse predicted that the effort to set technical water quality standards by political judgment rather than by scientific merit will not hold up to scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the ultimate authority.

"There is a train wreck down the line on these," he said.

Wild rice and sulfates

The sulfate standard for wild rice waters is a case in point, one that has elicited a passionate response across the political spectrum -- American Indian tribes, wild ricers, Iron Rangers, industry and environmentalists. At a recent legislative hearing, Robertson, of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, described the colliding interests as a perfect storm.

Last year the state Pollution Control Agency and the EPA launched a review of the state standard, now 10 parts per million, after mining companies stumbled over it. The standard was set in the 1970s, after a renowned state biologist found that wild rice doesn't grow in water high in sulfates, a common pollutant from mine waste rock. Minnesota, the country's primary producer of wild rice, is the only state around the Great Lakes that has such a standard.

But the standard was seldom enforced until tribes and environmental groups raised it in connection with recent mining proposals for the Iron Range. Now, mining and other business groups dispute the science and say that upholding it will cripple not just mining companies but also other industries and waste-water treatment facilities across the state.

"It's a nightmare," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

Environmentalists and Indian tribes -- which have the same standard for water on their land -- argue that it's sound, and that it should stay where it is until scientific research proves otherwise.

Legislators' ideas

Enter the Legislature.

Rukavina first introduced a bill to raise the standard to 250 parts per million -- a level he concedes was arbitrary, but which would reduce potential mitigation costs for mining projects proposed for his district. The House environment committee rolled the standard into the environmental finance bill -- along with language that exempts businesses from having to make capital investments in technologies to meet it.

At the last minute, the committee voted to drop 250 parts per million down to 50. The bill also instructs the state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) to continue scientific research already underway to nail down the appropriate standard, a process likely to take at least two growing seasons.

But state pollution officials and environmental groups say the Legislature should not establish a standard by legislative fiat.

"If they don't want clean water, they should tell us what the policy is," said Morse. "But don't set a science-based number."

Lawmakers' effort also won't hold up under federal clean water laws, said PCA Commissioner Paul Aasen.

"A statutory change will not change the standard in the EPA's eyes," he said.

Several other legislative proposals for water rules follow a similar philosophy. Sen. John Pederson, a St. Cloud Republican who proposed to both ease phosphorus standards for Lake Pepin and put a two-year moratorium on any water quality regulations, has said he wants to reduce costs for cities and businesses. Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Coon Rapids, said he authored a bill to end the regulatory process for the Mississippi River because residential and business property owners along its banks objected to it.

"The rules controlled what [owners] could do with their property," he said. "It's a jobs issue, too."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394