In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio’s Tom Scheck, Gov. Mark Dayton said that the state’s controversial wild rice sulfate standard might be needlessly strict and could threaten Northern Minnesota’s iron mining industry.
The comments come after a number of bills from House Republicans and the mostly DFL Iron Range legislative delegation seek to strip state regulatory powers and require additional study to enforce the 1973 standard designed to protect wild rice in its native waters, a matter of great importance to Minnesota’s Ojibwa community and clean water advocates.
From Scheck’s must-read-or-hear story:
“Some people will say, ‘you’re going to abandon the standard,'” Dayton said. “But if the standard is obsolete and it’s not validated by current science and information, then to stick with it and close down an industry isn’t really well advised.” …
… “If you have an impossibly low standard that doesn’t correlate the problem that you’re trying to solve anyway … you put the whole industry out of business,” he said. “We don’t even know if it’s going to improve wild rice conditions and it’s going to be catastrophic for life up in northeastern Minnesota.”
Environmentalists point out that the current wild rice sulfate standard of 10 parts per million was developed after exhaustive study that they say has yet to be refuted by non-industry research. Here’s Kathryn Hoffman of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy in Scheck’s story:
“If the governor is saying that there is some other scientific basis or some other studies that we haven’t seen or these peer reviewers haven’t seen then we’d like to know more about that,” she said. “But we believe that all water quality standards are based on science and they can’t be changed without a scientific basis.”
Dayton’s comments are significant because they now show a clear political pathway for proposals to loosen the clean water rules affecting both iron-mining and non-ferrous mining industries, so long as Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk can clear something out of his DFL caucus. However, there could yet be a non-legislative path forward for the mines, one that might satisfy calls for compromise.
Right now many of the bills on the docket are essentially nullification proposals — attacking the state’s ability to regulate, not just actual regulations. These are dream proposals for the business community, but would also make it difficult to address regulation if pollution worsened. One wonders if some practical negotiation between the MPCA and Environmental Protection Agency could allow a “peace deal” of sorts allowing further study of the wild rice issue without blocking existing mines or the state’s interest in future water quality. That’s my bet, but House Republicans and Range legislators are going to try for the “whole hog” here, and that makes political sense, even if it proves to be a scientific overcorrection.
Gov. Dayton is in a unique position to be a middle-ground negotiator here, though it’s hard to imagine the environmental lobby having much trust in him (or the leaders in the GOP House or DFL Senate) at this point. Meantime, Northern Minnesota’s iron mining industry girds for a long year of low iron ore prices and potential mine shutdowns. Copper-nickel mining proposals like PolyMet await similar market problems should they receive permits in the upcoming year, something yet to be determined. The business of the mining economy is increasingly conducted on smaller pieces of paper with thinning margins.
UPDATE: The MPCA has announced a 3:30 p.m. news conference to detail its findings about the wild rice standard and detail how it plans to address the controversial standard over the next two years. The Star Tribune has that story.