Political Matters: U.S. Steel vs. manoomin
Friday, March 27 2015
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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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 Mark Dayton said that the state’s environmental standard for protecting manoomin (wild rice) was outdated scientifically and was threatening industrial development Up North.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 reported.

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 mining.

“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.

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