|Written by Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio News,
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Wild rice, the iconic grain that
grows across much of the northern half of the state, is at the center
of a contentious debate over mining and the environment.
A 40-year-old state law limits how
much of a mining byproduct called "sulfate" can be
discharged into wild rice producing waters. Prompted by mining
industry concerns that the standard is too stringent, the state has
been giving it another look and will release results of its two-year
study on Jan. 6.
For members of the state's Indian
tribes, wild rice is sacred.
Jim Northrup, who has harvested wild
rice on Perch Lake on the Fond du Lac reservation for over half a
century, said the grain called "manomin" in Ojibwe is a
gift from the Creator that led his people to first settle here.
"The old stories said we'd move
west until we came to a spot where food grew on the water,"
Northrup said. "And that perfectly describes manomin. It's
become our identity now. It's who we are."
Wild rice is now part of all of
Minnesota's identity. It's even the official state grain. The plant's
significance helped lead to a 1973 state law to protect it from
sulfate pollution, a form of sulfur that occurs naturally in the
environment, that's also a byproduct of industrial activities like
wastewater treatment and mining.
The law limits sulfate discharges
into wild rice producing waters to 10 milligrams per liter during
periods when the rice may be susceptible to damage. It's based on
research done by John Moyle, a biologist for the Minnesota Department
of Conservation in the 1930s and 40s that found that no large wild
rice stands grew in waters high in sulfate.
But the standard went largely
unenforced until 2010, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
began to ask mining companies to document wild rice plants in lakes
and streams where they discharge wastewater. The following year the
agency issued a permit that limited sulfate discharges at U.S.
Steel's Keewatin Taconite operation, known as Keetac.
Nancy Schuldt, water resource policy
director for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said
high levels of sulfate have been measured in those waters, and wild
rice stands are disappearing.
"The poster child would be
Sandy and Little Sandy lake, at the toe of the Minntac Tailings
basin," she said. "A generation ago, band members from
Grand Portage for instance, were having rice camps there, and there
would be familial gatherings and it was a meeting place. And now
there's no rice to harvest."
But mining companies and some
northern Minnesota lawmakers questioned the science behind the
In 2010 the Minnesota Chamber of
Commerce sued to overturn it, although the case was eventually
dismissed by the courts. Bills were introduced to weaken it. In the
end, lawmakers set aside $1.5 million for a two-year study to
determine whether the standard is scientifically valid. The results
will be released later Monday.
"The study actually relies on
multiple lines of investigation," said Shannon Lotthammer,
director of the MPCA's environmental analysis and outcomes division.
She said scientists have gathered more field data from northern
Minnesota and have conducted experiments on wild rice plants in glass
jars in the lab and in plants grown outside in plastic tubs, to try
to learn exactly what effect sulfate has on the plants.
An important question is whether
sulfate by itself is the main culprit, Lotthammer said. Scientists
theorize that hydrogen sulfide damages wild rice. In an
oxygen-starved environment like the muck in wild rice lakes, bacteria
essentially breathe in sulfate, and exhale hydrogen sulfide, which
can be toxic to plants.
"It's sulfate then being
converted into sulfide in the sediment, and the sulfide affecting the
wild rice through the roots," explained Lotthammer.
The study's results should provide
more clarity. But Lotthammer said it will take the MPCA until the end
of February to answer a key question: "Do we believe that
there's a reason to support, a scientific basis to support a change
to the standard, and if so, does it look like the standard should be
higher or lower, based on this new information?"
The MPCA's decision is sure to be
highly scrutinized, particularly by the mining industry. "We
just believe that a standard should be based on science, and that
companies shouldn't be required to invest maybe hundreds of millions
of dollars, until we have science backing up whatever the appropriate
sulfate level is for a standard to protect wild rice," said
Frank Ongaro, executive director of Minnesota Mining. The industry
group represents copper-nickel mines like PolyMet, currently under
PolyMet officials say they will meet
the current standard.
Supporters of the law argue it is
based on sound science. Under the federal Clean Water Act, the burden
of proof is on MPCA to show scientific proof before changing the
standard, said Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, a group
that opposes the PolyMet proposal.
"I think that's what we're
counting on, is that, our laws don't make it easy for political
pressure to weaken water quality standards," she said.
The MPCA will analyze study results
for the next two months. In April the agency will begin a rulemaking
process to address any recommended changes to the wild rice standard,
and to designate which waters are subject to the sulfate limits.
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