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Wild rice standard: Political meddling undermines credibility of the MPCA

Steve Robertsen USFS
We may now understand why the state’s Pollution Control Agency spent more than three decades studiously ignoring a state sulfate standard designed to protect wild rice.

The following is an editorial from The Timberjay of Ely/Tower/Cook, Minn.

We may now understand why the state’s Pollution Control Agency spent more than three decades studiously ignoring a state sulfate standard designed to protect wild rice. The standard — the nation’s strictest at 10 milligrams per liter — has put the MPCA in a political and legal vise, with no easy way for agency officials to extricate themselves.

On one side are northern Minnesota Indian tribes and environmental groups, who have been threatening legal action for years over the agency’s failure to enforce the existing water quality standard. On the other side is the taconite industry and its supporters, who question whether sulfate is truly harming wild rice and whether it makes sense, in either case, to foist significant clean-up costs on an industry that is already struggling with the effects of a worldwide glut of iron ore and steel.

Enter the politicians, who have gone in multiple directions in hopes of staving off enforcement of the rule to protect the taconite industry. And despite the current uproar over the agency’s latest proposed sulfate standard, it’s worth noting that the MPCA is doing exactly what the Legislature, at the urging of the Iron Range delegation, told them to do.

A little history may be in order. About five years ago, Iron Range politicians made moves to significantly loosen the sulfate standard as the agency started to take steps to enforce it for the first time. But MPCA officials informed them they couldn’t do that without scientific evidence to justify it, so the politicians approved funds for a new study, hoping that it would discredit the 1940s-era science that provided the basis for the current standard.

It didn’t go well. Instead, the research — this time led by UMD biology professor Dr. John Pastor — largely confirmed the work of the late DNR biologist Dr. John Moyle.

The MPCA mulled over the findings and did the only thing they could legally do under the provisions of the Clean Water Act: they announced that they would begin enforcing the 10 mg/l sulfate standard on dischargers into wild rice waters.

That’s when unpleasant stuff hit the fan in St. Paul. Iron Range legislators and US Steel went to Gov. Dayton and said no way. As a way out, the governor and MPCA officials put forward their so-called “flexible standard,” citing some preliminary findings from the Pastor study that suggested that higher levels of iron in the sediments of receiving waters might help to mitigate the harmful effects of higher sulfate levels.

Iron Range legislators lauded the new concept, if only because it likely meant two more years without enforcement of the current standard. After all, just like legislators, regulators can’t change a water quality standard without going through a rule-making process, which typically takes about a year and a half to complete under normal circumstances, which these are not. The recent hearing in Virginia was part of that rule-making process.

In the meantime, the Legislature and governor enacted a law in 2015 that prohibited the MPCA from enforcing the existing standard until the rule-making process could be completed, some time in 2017. Last year, the Legislature passed yet another law, this one giving the MPCA until the end of 2018 to develop its new rule. When the MPCA issued a draft of its proposal this past August, Iron Range officials again acted with alarm, apparently assuming they had more time. In fact, the MPCA needs to be at this stage in order to complete the rulemaking in 2018, as the Legislature had ordered.

Now, Iron Range legislators are promising new legislation to prevent the MPCA from finishing the work they had earlier instructed them to do. They’ve cued up the scaremongering, suggesting bankruptcy for Iron Range communities and the shutdown of the region’s taconite industry. None of that is true, of course, but it helps to keep every local official singing from the same hymnbook.

In short, it’s a mess. And the more that legislators interfere with the process, the more they bolster the claims of environmental critics who allege that politics, not science, governs the regulation of major industries in Minnesota, particularly mining. After the past five years, it’s tough to argue otherwise, and that should concern Minnesotans who are legitimately concerned about protecting the environment.

Republished with permission.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bill Willy on 11/08/2017 - 01:18 pm.


    Nine years (and four days) ago, in November of 2008, Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment to “preserve and enhance some of the most important elements of our state.” The most important element voters said they wanted preserved and enhanced was Minnesota water.

    The over-60% majority of Minnesotans who voted for that Constitutional Amendment not only voted for it “in spirit,” but voted for it in classic, “Put your money where your mouth is,” form by agreeing to pay increased sales tax to provide the funding to make that possible.

    As stated in that amendment:

    “33 percent of the receipts may be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife;

    “33 percent of the receipts shall be deposited in the clean water fund and may be spent only to protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and to protect groundwater from degradation, and at least five percent of the clean water fund must be spent only to protect drinking water sources”

    The people — the public servants — responsible for carrying out that clear constitutional directive have not been doing that when it comes to the mining industry. The DNR, the MPCA, the Minnesota Legislature and, unfortunately, the Governor, have, in fact, been working against that “constitutionally expressed will of the people.”

    Existing iron ore operations have been polluting Minnesota’s waters for decades while operating on expired permits for almost as long. Permits that the MPCA is SUPPOSED to (by law) review and approve every five years, but hasn’t. Instead, they have allowed the mining industry to continuously pollute the St. Louis River and the waters of Lake Superior at Duluth without interference.,2015).pdf

    The DNR has done no better and, more recently, appears to be in all but total collusion with the mining industry to push through the Polymet project (which would lead to more — and much more toxic — mining pollution): The scientific and historical evidence that non-ferrous mining WILL cause unbelievably toxic and uncorrectable pollution of Minnesota’s water is overwhelming; yet, by giving approval to Polymet’s most recent environmental impact statement, the DNR is saying they find that “acceptable.”

    When Democrats in the Minnesota Legislature attempt to help carry out the will of people as expressed in the Legacy Amendment, they are undermined by members of their own party who turn to Republicans for the support they need to ensure the continuing “blank check” support of the mining industry because, correctly or incorrectly, they see that support as imperative for the economic well-being of their part of the state.

    So what are the people of Minnesota to do? They voted, overwhelmingly, to tax themselves to cover the cost of protecting and improving the quality of the state’s water, but, in the case of mining, NONE of the agencies responsible for carrying out that constitutional directive is paying any attention to it, or taking any consequential actions to stop long-known water polluters from doing so.

    And worse, it appears they’re getting ready to proactively “sanction” and usher-in even MORE and worse sources and forms of water-destroying industrial activity in the heart of the state’s most highly valued, complex and sprawling fresh water system.

    Minnesotans did NOT vote for a Constitutional Amendment to allow the iron mining industry to pollute our waters without any challenge or enforcement of the laws (state and federal) from the MPCA.

    Minnesotans did NOT vote to have the DNR and MPCA allow the mining industry to expand into a new form of mining that has an extremely high probability of polluting Minnesota’s most precious waters in a way that could devastate (or “greatly diminish”) the lives of 25 generations of Minnesotans, at least.

    Minnesotans voted for a Constitutional Amendment to preserve and enhance all of Minnesota’s water but, when it comes to existing mining operations and the copper mining proposals on the table and in the pipeline, it appears that almost no one in Minnesota’s state government is obeying that (supposedly) Supreme Law, but appear to be doing all they can to knowingly violate it.


    Why are they being allowed to get away with it?

    And, maybe most importantly, what can be done to stop those who may well be violating our state’s Constitution and doing so aggressively, with blatant disregard for the will of nearly two-thirds of the people who live here?

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/08/2017 - 09:23 pm.

    So what has ….

    this abridging,bending and twisting of the law financially brought to the citizens, business and state coffers of Minnesota ? Has this clever conniving made it better for any sector ? I would bet any money made is no longer in the state ! When creating the spread sheet consider the benefits of a pristine environment on expenses for public health,cultural regard, environmental equalibrium and therefore sustainability. I dare you.

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