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Minnesota has convened yet another panel on wild rice. Can it actually get anything done?

In many respects, 2018 was a long and winding road back to square one for Minnesota’s wild rice standard.

The wild rice rule has been one of the state’s most divisive natural resource issues, and has left some doubting whether any compromise on the regulation can ever be reached among environmentalists, tribes and industry groups.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s task force on wild rice kicked off in Grand Rapids last week, marking the latest attempt to find common ground on protecting Minnesota’s most famous grain from pollution.

The panel was created in May by an executive order from the governor after he vetoed efforts to undo the state’s unique and controversial wild rice standard, which limits the release of sulfate in water that’s home to the grain. Sulfate is notably discharged by taconite mining operations and by wastewater treatment plants.

The wild rice rule has been one of the state’s most divisive natural resource issues, and has left some doubting whether any compromise on the regulation can ever be reached among environmentalists, tribes and industry groups.

How’d we get here?

In many respects, 2018 was a long and winding road back to square one for Minnesota’s wild rice standard.

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At the direction of the Legislature, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) proposed new rules in 2017 after years of studying the effect of sulfate on wild rice. But administrative law judges threw them out earlier this year — in part for being too complex.

Separately, lawmakers tried to take their own route on changing the standard, approving bills that would nullify it altogether. Legislators supporting the bills argued that the current wild rice rule, created in the 1970s, is outdated and if enforced would saddle industry and municipal governments with millions in costs for technology to treat sulfate.

Dayton, however, vetoed the measures. In a letter to House Speaker Kurt Daudt, he called nullifying the sulfate standard “an extreme overreach that eliminates important protections for wild rice.” He also said they would cause the state to fall out of compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

The federal law requires states to protect “beneficial uses” of their waters, according to an analysis of the sulfate rule from the MPCA. Minnesota’s wild rice standard was approved by the EPA under that provision, and is believed to be the only rule of its kind in the United States. This is because Minnesota has an unusual abundance of wild rice, which sustains wildlife, provides a boost to the state economy and is considered sacred by tribes such as the Ojibwe.

Kathryn Hoffman, the executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), said standards approved by the EPA can’t simply be eliminated — there must be a “scientific basis” for changing them. Hoffman is one of more than a dozen people appointed by Dayton to the task force.

While on the books, however, the existing wild rice standard is not widely enforced in part due to the cost concerns from industry and wastewater plants.

Will a task force do anything?

Political fault lines have been pretty stark on the wild rice standard. Many tribes and environmental groups, including Hoffman’s MCEA, have argued the existing standard is based on sound science and can be kept.

That standard was created based on work from scientist John Moyle, who in the 1930s and 1940s found fewer wild rice stands in water with higher sulfate levels, according to the MPCA analysis of the rule. The document says Moyle was “a highly respected biologist” who worked for the state.

Hoffman said waivers and exemptions can be used to mitigate the high cost of sulfate treatment for mines and wastewater groups.

Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, on the other hand, argued the wild rice rule is “not defensible by science.” Her organization supported the bill to nullify the standard, she said.

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The MPCA’s own study found a more complex relationship between sulfate and wild rice than the current standard would suggest. For instance, the MPCA says sulfate is not directly toxic to wild rice, but can be converted by bacteria to sulfide, which actually is toxic.

Johnson criticized how that study was conducted, too, and called for the task force to find existing “holes in the science” of how wild rice and sulfate interact to inform further research. There are two independent scientists with expertise in wild rice research on the panel. “I think that there are a lot of things left to learn, and I think that’s what the task force is kind of charged with,” she said.

Johnson is not on the task force, but association board member Chrissy Bartovich is. Bartovich works for U.S. Steel, which operates two taconite mines on the Iron Range.

The task force itself is not explicitly intended to recommend a new standard for wild rice protection. Instead, Dayton’s executive order says the task force must decide which waters should be given protections under any wild rice rule and best practices for “restoration and protection” of the grain. The panel must also review existing science on the impact of sulfate on wild rice and identify “information gaps” where further research is needed.

That course is intended to produce some compromise and consensus on some of the most divisive issues surrounding wild rice protection. The task force report is due by Dec. 15.

Of course, lawmakers don’t have to heed the task force’s advice. State Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, a member of the chamber’s environmental policy committee, told MinnPost that if the GOP remains in control of the House and Senate and Jeff Johnson wins the governor’s race, he’s inclined to simply re-pass the bill to nullify the wild rice standard. Eichorn was the primary sponsor of the 2018 Senate bill intended to do just that.

He said he wasn’t concerned about the EPA approving the nullification of the standard, in part because the agency is now run by President Donald Trump, who has supported the rollback of environmental regulations elsewhere. Although he did say virtually any change to the current wild rice standard would would likely invite litigation from outside groups. “We would like to put this to bed, so to speak,” Eichorn said.

But Eichorn also said the “additional dialogue” and work of the task force could be useful for lawmakers going forward if they offer next steps for the Legislature and said he wished the panel had more time to operate.

“I think the best thing they can hope for is a bit of consensus,” he said.

Johnson and Hoffman expressed optimism the task force would bring about enough new information to make some headway on the issue. The second meeting of the group is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Oct. 11 in Anoka.

“Our priorities are to find a solution that is protective of wild rice and uses best available science,” Hoffman said. “So I hesitate to prejudge any outcome because that’s what the process is for. But if those two values are followed, then I think it will be a really exciting thing to be a part of.”