Political Matters: U.S. Steel vs. manoomin


mordecai_specktor_some.jpgIn late March, Minnesota Gov. Mark

Dayton said that the state’s environmental standard for protecting

manoomin (wild rice) was outdated scientifically and was threatening

industrial development Up North.

At issue is state permitting for U.S.

Steel’s Minntac plant, in Mountain Iron, the largest taconite

operation in the U.S.

The facility’s taconite waste pit

has been polluting the local watershed for decades; and the federal

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informed state officials in

January that the company is violating the Clean Water Act.

In a March 24 interview with Minnesota

Public Radio News, Gov. Dayton addressed the state’s sulfate

standard for wild rice waters.

“U.S. Steel has made it very clear —

and they closed down the Keewatin plant, they’re still operating

the Minntac plant — but they made it very clear that they’re not

going to agree to a permit that has a standard of 10 [milligrams of

sulfate per liter],” Dayton told MPR reporter Tom Scheck.

The governor said that the allowable

sulfate level for wild rice waters “was posted in 1940, and

established in the 1960s and ’70s, as the standard, which is not

even applied to most other projects in Minnesota or any other place

in the country. So, MPCA [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] is

going to be coming out shortly with a way of taking the updated

scientific information and applying that to protecting the wild rice

in the waters, which we certainly want to do, but it’s got to be

done in a way that is based on current science and current

information, and not something that is antiquated. We can talk with

the EPA about collaborating with us in doing that and going through a

public process to work that out.”

In fact, Minnesota adopted a wild rice

sulfate standard in 1973. And regarding the MPCA, also on March 24,

the agency unveiled a proposal for protecting wild rice from excess

sulfate. Actually, it’s not a new across-the-board sulfate

standard, but a variable standard that will determine the quality of

the muck in each lake, stream and wetland where wild rice grows.

However, there is some controversy

about the new MPCA approach, which follows on the $1.5 million Wild

Rice Standard Study mandated by the Minnesota Legislature, in 2011.

The MPCA now proposes studying how the presence of iron and organic

carbon in lake sediment affects the conversion of sulfate to sulfide,

which has been found to damage the root development of wild rice.

“I am furious,” John Pastor told

the Star Tribune, regarding the new MPCA proposal.

A wild rice researcher at the

University of Minnesota Duluth, Pastor has conducted wild rice

studies for the state and Indian tribes. “This is scientifically

indefensible,” he said.

Pastor pointed out that conditions in

wild rice waters can change from year to year. A flood can wash

organic carbon out of lakes, for example, the Star Tribune


I wasn’t able to talk with

environmental officials from any of the Ojibwe bands up north, which

have been cooperating with the environmental review of the proposed

PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. The issue of

the sulfate standard has figured in the debate over sulfide mining in

the 1854 Treated Ceded Territory. Apart from manoomin being a gift

from the Creator, the bands retain subsistence rights in a vast

portion of the western Great Lakes.

Aaron Klemz, communications director

for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, addressed the

environmental questions the Minntac situation has for copper-nickel


“Minntac hasn’t had a valid permit

since 1992; and that’s one of things that’s most concerning for

us, as we look at … a wave of copper-nickel mine proposals,”

Klemz said during a phone chat. “If we aren’t able to renew a

permit for 23 years and follow current water quality standards for

existing mines, we have really grave concerns about how we would

treat these mines that have even greater pollution potential than

taconite mines do.”

Klemz mentioned the sulfate standard

controversy shows “how the regulatory system can be played.”

On this point, I mentioned that MPR

posted a photo on its Web site of “U.S. Steel lobbyist Peder

Larson” speaking to the Minnesota House Mining and Outdoor

Recreation Policy Committee on Feb. 4.

Larson’s name seemed familiar. A

little Internet research revealed that he was the MPCA commissioner

about 20 years ago — when I was covering the Minnesota House for

the nonpartisan Public Information Office. Larson’s job switch

illustrates the proverbial revolving door between government and

industry: today’s environmental regulator is tomorrow’s taconite

industry lobbyist.