Native Issues in the Halls of Government


Poisoning the waters

The three-week Minnesota government shutdown ended with Gov. Mark Dayton signing a sheaf of spending bills, including the omnibus environment, energy and natural resources finance bill, which contained a provision weakening the water quality standard for wild rice waters.

I wrote about this proposal in my May and June columns, and noted that the legislative measure suspends the current 10 milligrams per liter standard for sulfates in waters containing natural wild rice beds. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) will conduct a study to determine a new water quality standard for the protection of wild rice. Also, the new law states that the PCA cannot require a company applying for a waste water discharge permit to install expensive equipment to treat sulfates emissions, while the situation is being studied.

This change in state environmental rules was sponsored by legislators seeking to ease the way for PolyMet and other copper-nickel mining firms that have projects under development in northeastern Minnesota.

The PCA study on the protection of wild rice waters will involve tribal governments, including the Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage Ojibwe bands. Some of the mining activity is slated to take place within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, where the bands retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights.

In addition to the PolyMet copper-nickel mining project near Hoyt Lakes (which is going through a further environmental impact study), there are other "mining permits out for review that seem to escape a lot of public scrutiny," said Nancy Schuldt, the water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band’s environmental program. "I can assure you that the tribes are paying close attention and trying to make sure that the state regulatory agencies are doing a good job of protecting the state’s resources."

Tribal diligence will be necessary, because there is a clamor for jobs in northern Minnesota; and politicians are not necessarily going to prioritize the protection of wild rice when a new industry – sulfide mining – comes to town. In this respect, Rep. Chip Cravaack, the Republican who won Minnesota’s 8th congressional district seat in 2010, boasted in a recent e-mail that he is supporting something called the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act (H.R. 2018), which "would restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s… ability to issue revised or new water quality standards for states." It appears that the legislation is intended to bolster state environmental control; but Cravaack writes: "Legislation like this will help reduce the influence of radical environmentalists’ opposition to mining in northern Minnesota."

I would differ with Rep. Cravaack over his use of the term "radical environmentalists" to tar Minnesotans who are rightly fearful that our natural heritage will be irreparably damaged by poorly controlled sulfide mining schemes.

From generation to generation

I’ve been politically involved since my teenage years, maybe earlier. In the early ’60s, I went door to door in a suburb of St. Paul selling brotherhood buttons for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was campaigning for civil rights in the South. In 1964, I worked for the DFL Party in their downtown St. Paul headquarters – and received an engraved invitation to the Johnson-Humphrey inauguration. (I think it might be in a box somewhere in the basement.)

Skipping ahead, my interest in environmental and peace issues led me to work for the Black Hills Alliance, which held survival gatherings in 1979 and 1980, in order to rally popular opposition to destructive energy development projects in the southern Black Hills. During that time I began my career as a professional journalist, with a focus on issues in Indian Country. I’ve been writing for The Circle for more than 30 years.

Now my middle son, Max, is showing great interest in the planetary ecological crisis. Last month he attended the Earth First! Rendezvous in the Lolo National Forest, near Missoula in western Montana. The gathering took place after the ExxonMobil oil pipeline burst in the Yellowstone River, and sent a plume of black oil 25 miles downstream from Laurel, Mont.

You can find some amusing YouTube videos of the EarthFirsters confronting Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer at his Helena office. The environmentalists demanded that he rescind his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which will have 10-times the capacity of the ExxonMobil pipeline that ruptured.

This large pipe will bring crude oil down from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the Midwest and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, if Keystone XL pipeline blows, the resulting mess would dwarf the recent ExxonMobil oil spill in the Yellowstone.