In 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manoomin (wild rice) was outdated scientifically and was threatening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.
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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