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In Minnesota, we need to value our children at least as much as wild rice

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, the Wild Rice Advisory Committee will meet in Duluth at the MPCA regional office to narrow down the definition of “water used for production of wild rice.”

Are we willing to say that the sulfate standard does not matter if a lake or river or stream does not contain wild rice?
CC/Flickr/Indiana Public Media

ELY, Minn. — When sulfide mining was proposed for Minnesota, a spotlight was shone on taconite mining. Minnesota’s sulfate standard, which the taconite industry cannot or will not meet, was illuminated.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) gave us our wake-up call when its 2007-2011 study showed 10 percent of newborns in the Lake Superior Basin had toxic levels of mercury in their blood. There is an apparent link from the results of that MDH study to the sulfates released by taconite mining.

Yet the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), instead of maintaining the 10mg/L sulfate standard for all wild-rice-producing waters, is now considering protecting at that standard only those waters to be designated “a wild rice water” — meaning a body of water containing a stand of wild rice big enough to qualify for this designation.

“Big enough” is yet to be determined. It may not matter if some wild rice stands have been so damaged, or even obliterated, by mining and other industrial sulfate releases that they will not qualify. “In Minnesota, sulfates leached from mining discharge have impacted wild rice growth 100 miles from the discharge site.”  (Nature Conservancy)

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To be fair, the MPCA was given a dirty deal with the charge they were handed by the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton. The governor signed off on the 2011 budget deal, which included a wild rice measure. Evidently the Legislature and the governor felt it was logical to spend $1.5 million for a study of a standard that has already been scientifically established, primarily because mining-industry proponents claim they doubt the established science.

The reality is that the mining industry does not want to worry about having to meet the standard, which is ironic because the agencies have not enforced it. A recent Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) lawsuit was dismissed because the Chamber could not argue that the wild rice rule was “vague and arbitrarily applied,” when the wild rice standard had never been applied in the first place — laughable if it were not true.

Demand that agencies protect our children

The Chamber, mining, and wastewater-treatment folks involved in the wild rice study believe it is rational to separate sulfates that damage wild rice from sulfates that ultimately damage our newborns by triggering methylmercury production. When MPCA scientists suggest that now would be the time to study both issues and it is irrational not to, the Chamber shot the suggestion down, its attorneys pointing to language in the legislation that refers to “wild rice” – and nothing else. So the effects of sulfates and methylmercury on our children are off the table when determining the sulfate standard. Unbelievable. 

And the equally unbelievable truth is that despite what we know about sulfates, only waters containing wild rice are currently protected by the 10 milligrams per liter (10mg/L) standard. The rest of our waters, and our children, get to live with the 250mg/L sulfates that industry is normally allowed to release. Or, with variances that legally allow industry to break the law, an example being the recent Mesabi Nugget variance that allowed it to ignore the sulfate standard, courtesy of the MPCA and its advisory board.

Why not enforce a 10mg/L sulfate standard, or even lower, for all Minnesota waters so they could recover and our fish would again be safe to eat? Minnesota currently has a Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) process. If our waters become mercury impaired a TMDL is to be put in place, designed to lower mercury so fish tissues return to a safe level. But if we only limit mercury and allow sulfates, we are defeating ourselves because it is the sulfates that trigger production of methylmercury.

There is no TMDL plan for the Lake Superior Basin. Why? Because its waters are supposedly so impaired that it would take too long to make a difference. Tell that to our newborns every year as toxic blood levels climb, especially if proposed sulfide mining is permitted and industry succeeds in its campaign to weaken the sulfate standard.

Technical advisers

The Chamber and its corporate members are doing their best to weight the Wild Rice Advisory Committee with paid technical advisers, legally not part of the decision-making process. Increasing numbers of these technical advisers and so-called industry observers participate during meetings in a concerted effort to sabotage the process, denigrating the findings of scientists who have spent their lives in research.

If only industry and the Chamber cared enough to put our children’s health first. Sulfates that cause damage to wild rice also cause damage to our children. Taconite mining is not the only industry responsible for the sulfates released to our waters, although it is the primary source in northern Minnesota. The sulfate standard has not been enforced at wastewater treatment plants and other industrial sources either.

The Chamber is clear about where it stands: “Our members have permits and projects that are affected by water quality standards.”

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Permits and projects. We have children that are affected by water quality standards! Permits and projects versus children. What if it was your child that the Chamber considered less important than the needs of its members? 

Industry can claim they care about our children, and our waters, but the minute its spokespeople objected to the 10mg/L sulfate standard it gave lie to such claims. Natural sulfate levels in northern Minnesota waters used to be 3mg/L or 4mg/L. Waters above current mining activities are still at that level; downstream of mining activity the sulfate levels are far higher. No surprise that many waters downstream of mining may not be protected if the sulfate standard is rewritten.

Proposed sulfide mining in the sulfide bearing rock of the Duluth Complex will only release more sulfates, far more than taconite mining. Is a mining job worth the health of a child? 

Rhetoric is not reality

The Chamber claims, as do mining corporations, that the 10mg/L standard is not based on science. Spreading this lie and insulting the scientists who established the standard does not make it true. Nor does PolyMet’s recent claim that its pilot study enables it to meet the sulfate standard and therefore proves that reverse osmosis will make PolyMet feasible in our water-rich environment.

A pilot study only shows what may happen on the same scale, with the same conditions. A pilot study is not a massive sulfide mine. PolyMet’s pilot study reportedly treated 1 million gallons of water, 1 million gallons in six months. That would equate to only 2 million gallons per year. At closure PolyMet’s NorthMet Project would be leaching 6 million gallons per day from its tailings basin alone, 2,190 million gallons each year. There is no proof that it is possible to successfully operate a treatment plant on such a scale, 12 months of every year in perpetuity. 

Just what is PolyMet’s plan for reverse osmosis? What exactly will the water-treatment plant treat? Does it include all stockpile and waste rock runoff, all tailing basin seepage, and all processing wastewater? What about the multitude of issues inherent with operating a water-treatment plant on such a massive scale – feasibility, cost, accidents, human error, equipment failure, winter, 500-year events? Remember the rainfall this past summer? Who pays for and operates the plant in perpetuity? What about the NorthMet mine pit that no treatment plant can solve, likely destined to be another Berkley Pit with its mineralized pit walls? A toxic NorthMet Pit; that would eventually overflow into the Arrowhead’s labyrinth of waters.  

On Oct. 9, 2012, the Business North headline declared, PolyMet says pilot project proves water will meet standards.” But PolyMet’s President and CEO Jon Cherry said: “We want both the community and agencies to understand our commitment to constructing and operating NorthMet Project in an environmentally responsible manner that meets all applicable standards.” “Applicable standards” is slippery rhetoric. Cherry did not say the NorthMet Project would meet the 10mg/L sulfate standard because massive efforts are being made to weaken it.

Reverse osmosis is not a brand new process. So why was reverse osmosis not part of PolyMet’s NorthMet DEIS in the first place? Because it is prohibitively expensive in a large, disseminated ore body. 

Talk is easy and cheap. Mining companies in Minnesota know they can play the “economically feasible” card – they already are – and wrangle a variance allowing them to continue polluting our waters and damaging our children. It is time to hold industry and our agencies accountable. If a company does not comply, shut it down with the stipulation that employees stay on payroll until compliance is proven.

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Speak for the children

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, the Wild Rice Advisory Committee will meet in Duluth at the MPCA regional office to narrow down the definition of “water used for production of wild rice.” No surprise that the Chamber and the mining industry will be vociferously advocating for limiting the interpretation of waters that would qualify. 

Call the MPCA. Speak up for our children. Their future, their health and clean water, is our legacy to them. Are we willing to say that the sulfate standard does not matter if a stand of wild rice is not considered large enough by the Chamber and industry to warrant protection? Are we even willing to say that the sulfate standard does not matter if a lake or river or stream does not contain wild rice? Are we willing to say it does not matter, when we also know the cost to our children?

Are we saying that our children do not warrant as much protection as wild rice? 

C.A. Arneson lives on a lake in the Ely area.


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