Political Matters: May 2018

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Manoomin and mining

In late April, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) threw in the towel on its effort to devise a protection standard for wild rice waters. The protection of manoomin (wild rice) has been one of the concerns expressed by Ojibwe bands in Minnesota, during the long-running controversy over the introduction of copper-nickel mining in the state’s Arrowhead Region.

The MPCA had been directed by the Legislature, in 2011, to conduct research on the effects of sulfate and other substances on wild rice growth, in an effort to evaluate the existing wild rice sulfate standard – which had been established in 1973.

In the fall of 2017, the MPCA produced a new water quality standard to protect wild rice from the detrimental effects of excess sulfate. As noted on the MPCA’s website, “the draft rule went through a public notice and comment period. The MPCA modified its proposal based on that public input, before forwarding the updated draft Wild Rice rule to an Administrative Law Judge with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings.”
In a report issued April 12, the Administrative Law Judge disapproved of the MPCA’s revised wild rice regulations.

In a statement on the state agency’s website, MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said, “We’ve heard many, many voices, including the Administrative Law Judge on this topic, and the message is clear. Although the science is accurate, when it comes to how best to apply the science and affordably implement the rule, we still have more work to do. So, the MPCA will withdraw it from the rulemaking process. We look forward to working with legislators over the next three weeks to determine an alternative path forward.”

Regarding Stine’s comment about working with legislators, the Administrative Law Judge directed the MPCA, if it did not “correct the identified defects” in its revised wild rice regulations, to “submit the proposed rule to the Legislative Coordinating Commission and to the legislative policy committees with primary jurisdiction over state governmental operations for advice and comment.”

We’ll see what the Legislature decides – they’ve screwed this up in the past.

The problem vis-à-vis the state elected officials is that there’s been a bipartisan effort to ignore the science around sulfate levels in wild rice waters, in the interest of greasing the skids for the sulfide mining industry. I wrote a column about this seven years ago, in The Circle’s May 2011 edition.

“In Minnesota, concern is growing that run-off from copper-nickel mine waste will pollute waterways that support wild rice beds,” I wrote. “Since some of the mining projects are within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, Ojibwe tribal officials are closely monitoring the proposed extractive projects….

“I talked with Betsy Daub, policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, who explained that the [Minnesota] standard is based on maximum sulfate levels, 10 milligrams per liter, in wild rice waters. The 10 milligram-limit came from studies conducted in the 1940s, by John Moyle, a field biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. The research, which biologists say still remains sound, found that sulfates settle in river and lake sediment; microbes change the sulfates into sulfides, which impede the root development of wild rice plants.”

In 2011, Daub pointed out that a Minnesota House proposal would raise the sulfate limit to 50 milligrams per liter – “it’s just a number literally picked out of thin air – it sounded better, it’s not a science-based number,” said Daub.

The new 50 milligrams per liter sulfate standard was the brainstorm of former DFL legislator Tom Rukavina, who admitted to me that he “came up with a number as an interim number that seemed reasonable to me.” Rukavina also ventured that some MPCA officials “embedded in their bureaucracy, that don’t want to see copper-nickel mining.”

Fast forward to 2018: The Administrative Law Judge’s April order on the MPCA regulations stated that both the Fond du Lac Band and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa “have in place wild rice water quality standards that limit sulfate to 10 milligrams/liter. These standards are federally approved and not alterable by the state. The Administrative Law Judge expressed a concern that loosening the sulfate standard for the state’s designated waters could degrade the quality of the Bands’ wild rice waters.”

Hopefully, legislators will consider tribal input as they consider a state standard for sulfate levels in wild rice waters. Over recent years, politicians have been playing a variety of games with manoomin. It’s really time for that to stop.