REGIONAL— Iron Range legislators used their political clout with Gov. Mark Dayton in February to forestall a planned announcement by the state’s Pollution Control Agency that a contentious water quality rule designed to protect wild rice should be affirmed. That’s according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which obtained emails and other internal documents through a public records request.
The MPCA, back on Feb. 27, had planned to announce its recommendation that the state’s current 10 parts per million discharge standard for sulfate be continued. The agency, two days earlier, had alerted the media of a press briefing coinciding with the announcement. But the very next day, the MPCA abruptly cancelled its plans, without explanation.
The Star Tribune review of documents shows that Gov. Dayton and MPCA officials came under pressure from Iron Range legislators as soon as it became clear that the agency intended to stand by its longstanding water quality rule. According to the Star Tribune, all eight Iron Range legislators met with MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine the day before the planned announcement and told him they feared that the agency’s recommendation, preliminary though it was, had the potential to “shut down the entire taconite industry.”
An email exchange between Dayton chief of staff Jaime Tincher and Stine, obtained by the Star Tribune, made it clear that legislators were putting intense pressure on the governor to intervene. “This is a big deal and it is blowing up this morning,” said Tincher on Feb. 26. “Agreed,” responded Stine, “the meeting with range legislators went poorly.” “I heard,” responded Tincher. “We need to put together a plan.”
After several days of discussions, the plan emerged in the form of additional research, more outside scientific review, and the establishment of a stakeholders group to further discuss the issue. It all promised more delay in a controversy that has percolated for years, ever since environmental groups and Indian tribes first began pushing the state to better enforce its sulfate rule, which applies only to wild rice waters. Back in 2010, tribes, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, stepped up the pressure on state regulators to follow through with an enforcement plan.
Range legislators push for changes
But Iron Range legislators pushed back in 2011, backing a bill to loosen the sulfate standard. They argued that the strict limit, which had been in effect since the 1970s, could discourage taconite mining expansion in northeastern Minnesota, where most of the state’s wild rice is found.
In the end, after the EPA balked at the bill, legislators earmarked $1.5 million for an MPCA study of the science behind the stringent rule. Three years later, agency officials say the research verified studies dating back to the 1940s, upon which the standard was based. While the research found that sulfate by itself was not harmful to wild rice, experiments demonstrated that when it gets into oxygen-free lake sediments, microbes convert it to hydrogen sulfide, a compound that’s toxic to many types of aquatic plants, including wild rice.
But Iron Range legislators say the science isn’t definitive, and they point to a study commissioned by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that suggests wild rice can tolerate higher sulfate levels. The chamber argues that many other businesses, besides mines, as well as many cities could be forced to clean up discharges if the rule is effectively enforced. The chamber filed suit over the matter but ultimately lost at the Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the state’s sulfate rule remains on the books, but is rarely enforced. And wild rice stands across the region continue to decline, according to wild rice harvesters.