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Of water-quality standards, government streamlining, and your health

Wild rice on the St. Louis River, Minnesota
Courtesy of Elanne Palcich
Wild rice on the St. Louis River. Sulfates are known to impair natural wild-rice crops.

CHISHOLM, MINN. — While politicians are calling for the streamlining of our environmental permitting process, the agencies are quietly doing some streamlining of their own.

Since last spring, the Minnesota Department of Health has been considering removing the current Minnesota standard for manganese and replacing it with a health/protective guidance.

On the same date that public comments were due in regard to requesting a hearing on this matter (Nov. 17), work began on a demonstration manganese mining project in the town of Emily, north of Brainerd. Last March, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) refused citizen requests for an environmental impact statement to further evaluate the bore sampling project. The experimental high-pressure water technique being used to determine commercial viability has never been done in a manganese ore body in the United States.

The spokesman for the project is Brad Moore, who resigned his position as commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in 2008 and soon began working for Barr Engineering. Moore expresses no concerns about possible contamination of the sand and gravel aquifer, about lack of liners in the sediment pond and proper disposal of waste materials, or about lack of long-term monitoring for water contamination following the sampling project.

However, changing the current Minnesota standard for manganese to a “guidance” would mean that the amount of manganese in the drinking water source could increase to basically any level with no means of enforcement.

Manganese’s effects
Manganese is a known neurotoxin, with greatest effects on infants and the elderly. Since most manganese comes from food sources, additional manganese in drinking water can create a level of toxicity in vulnerable members of the population whose bodies cannot excrete the excess. Also, at the current time, the effects of chronic exposure to relatively low levels of manganese are unknown. As of September 2010, an article from the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences entitled “Intellectual Impairment in School-Age Children Exposed to Manganese from Drinking Water” has been posted online. According to these studies, higher manganese levels in tap water were significantly associated with lower IQ scores. The article can be seen here.

To the credit of the Minnesota Department of Health, it has postponed the decision to eliminate the current manganese standard after hearing from citizens and public-interest groups who expressed their concerns about this new information, and about the relationship of manganese to other neurological illnesses. A link to other rules changes being considered is here.

Wild ricing on the St. Louis River, Minn.
Courtesy of Elanne Palcich
Wild ricing on the St. Louis River, Minn.

At the same time, the MPCA has been discussing altering its rules and regulations to allow for more sulfates in our watersheds. Sulfates are a byproduct of the leaching tailings basins of the Minnesota taconite industry. Minntac’s tailings basin is leaching 4 million gallons per day of water containing sulfates and other contaminants. Sulfates stunt or destroy the natural wild rice crop and combine with mercury, also a byproduct of the taconite mining process, to form methylmercury, which bioaccumulates in fish tissue. Hence basically all of northeastern Minnesota lakes have fish advisories. The MPCA is considering relaxing its sulfate standards to allow more sulfates in the watershed, thus facilitating opening of a copper nickel range in the Arrowhead, which would greatly increase both sulfates and mercury. The sulfate decision is ongoing, with differences over how much sulfate wild rice can tolerate in comparison to paddy rice.

Public meetings today and Tuesday
The MPCA is holding public meetings today and Tuesday (Nov. 29 and 30) as part of its Triennial Review Rulemaking process. Proposals include modifying standards for turbidity, cadmium, copper, nonylphenol, chloride and nitrates. A weakening of current standards, especially for turbidity and copper, would facilitate the PolyMet permitting process. The opening of a copper-nickel range on what is currently Superior National Forest land would have great impacts on water quality for aquatic life, wildlife, recreation, and ultimately, people. Citizens can contact the MPCA at 1-800-657-3864 for more information — or check out the link here.

It appears that Minnesota’s tough standards, as touted by industry and politics, don’t apply to our drinking water.  If you live near Emily or other sites where mining or mining exploration is currently taking place, consider that more toxins in your drinking water may be coming soon.

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/29/2010 - 09:57 pm.

    This is just one of many ways that the MPCA managed by King Timmy’s appointees who have had considerable leeway to set policy, have gutted pollution control in the state of Minnesota (by rewriting rules and, essentially, refusing to enforce existing laws), essentially the environmental equivalent of bridges falling down all over the state.

    But not to worry, they’ve created the “better business climate” which brought us all those wonderful, well-paying, high benefit jobs we were led to believe would follow.

    Oh… wait…

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