Range lawmakers spiked wild rice report

Iron Range newsIn late February, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was about to release a wild rice report indicating that the state’s wild rice standards (no more than 10 parts of sulfate per million) was an appropriate limit to ensure the health of wild rice crops. However, Iron Range lawmakers, concerned that the wild rice report would stop or freeze mining company investment in northern Minnesota, ferociously lobbied Gov. Mark Dayton and the MPCA to pull the report and spend more time studying the issue.

Dayton’s administration did just that, and two weeks later a much more weakly-worded wild rice report was issued.

All of this is detailed in a Sunday story from the Star Tribune‘s Josephine Marcotty which is well worth a read.

The “bad meeting” held between state officials and Range lawmakers was certainly something that Range politicos were anecdotally aware of. But Marcotty was able to dig into e-mails and records that detail exactly what happened, and it’s pretty fascinating.

It really felt to me at the time that the MPCA had the report practically loaded into the fax machine, ready to push send, when it was yanked at the last minute. This story seems to confirm how dramatic the last-minute push was to pull the report.

Another value to Marcotty’s story is this, the clearest explanation of sulfates, sulfides and the chemistry involved in this controversial topic that I’ve seen so far:

The 1973 pollution standard is based on decades-old research, which found that wild rice doesn’t grow in waters where concentrations of sulfate, a mineral salt, are higher than 10 parts per million. Minnesota is the only place where wild rice grows in abundance, now almost exclusively in the northeastern portion of the state. And it’s the only state with a rule on the books that protects it specifically from a pollutant that comes from taconite mining — also in the northeast.

Historically, the standard was seldom enforced — in part because sulfate was viewed as fairly benign and because no one was ever sure exactly what constituted a wild rice water protected by the rule, state officials say.

After concerns were raised by Indian tribes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, the MPCA decided to review the standard and signaled that it would consider enforcing it in future mining permits. But mining and industry groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, protested the state’s action, saying that enforcing it would cost cities, businesses and consumers millions of dollars. The chamber filed suit, ultimately losing its case at the appeals court level.

Meanwhile, the state commissioned several research studies to validate the 10 parts per million standard, and was ready to announce the conclusions at the end of February. They found that sulfate by itself doesn’t hurt wild rice. But when it gets down into the mud, microbes eat it and then it is converted to hydrogen sulfide — that familiar rotten egg smell — and is toxic to wild rice.

But Iron Range legislators brought the scheduled announcement to a sudden halt.

I mean, it’s four graphs, but about as concise as this stuff gets.

You can see in the story that the environmental debate that surrounds new copper and nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota is beginning to include traditional iron mines as well, long the economic and political nightmare of Range politicians. As I’ve written, this will further entrench pro-mining forces into an “all or nothing” approach, and likely will do the same with mining opposition.

Paradoxically, this is the approach that will probably least benefit northern Minnesota and its people.

DISCLOSURE: State Rep. Tom Anzelc, who is quoted in Marcotty’s story, is a friend and I run his campaigns.

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