Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

New bill would nullify protections for wild rice

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 3/15/18

REGIONAL—Northeastern Minnesota legislators are advancing new legislation in St. Paul that would nullify existing water quality standards designed to protect wild rice, and possibly violate the …

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New bill would nullify protections for wild rice

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REGIONAL—Northeastern Minnesota legislators are advancing new legislation in St. Paul that would nullify existing water quality standards designed to protect wild rice, and possibly violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The bill, known as HF 3280, would eliminate the state’s longstanding sulfate standard of 10 milligrams per liter for wild rice waters and would rescind the Legislature’s previous directive to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to adopt a new standard by 2019. The agency had proposed a new so-called “flexible” standard which would have relied on an equation to determine a sulfate standard on a case-by-case basis. An administrative law judge recently disallowed that approach, which has left agency officials unsure of how to proceed. The new legislation, if approved, would prohibit the MPCA from enforcing the flexible standard if a revised version is ultimately adopted.

Northern Minnesota legislators, including Reps. Rob Ecklund, DFL-I-Falls, Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, and Sandy Layman, GOP-Grand Rapids, are co-authoring the measure. Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, and Justin Eichorn, GOP-Grand Rapids, are co-authors of a Senate version of the bill.

At a hearing on the bill last week, before the House Environment and Natural Resources committee, a long list of taconite industry advocates testified for the measure, which they believe would provide relief from the potential costs of enforcing either the existing wild rice standard or the equation-based alternative proposed by the MPCA.

Steve Georgi, with the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, said the economic impact of enforcement of the MPCA’s proposed new standard is major concern for his organization and its members. “The MPCA acknowledges that treatment for sulfate can be extremely expensive,” he said, adding that such costs could force taconite producers to shut down, devastating the local economy.

Those comments were echoed by several other testifiers, including Kelsie Johnson, with the Iron Mining Association, Tony Kwilas, with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Larry Sutherland, head of Minnesota Operations for U.S. Steel, and Chrissy Bartovich, of U.S. Steel’s environmental division.

Sutherland questioned the effectiveness of the current wild rice standard and the MPCA’s proposed new standard. “How can the agency expect companies or cities to move forward with compliance when the agency cannot even say with certainty that rice will be protected?”

“We need to spend our limited capital on issues that will clearly lead to environmental benefit,” added Sutherland. “Unfortunately, the proposed sulfate rule does not do that.”

The committee did hear from a handful of opponents of the measure, including Bois Forte Band member Sharon Day, who spoke about the sacred nature of wild rice to Ojibwe and Dakota residents of the state. “Sacred means sacred, which is something you protect,” said Day. “This bill does nothing to protect wild rice. In fact, I see this bill to nullify the current standards as an attack on Ojibwe people.”

Kathryn Hoffman, with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, questioned the legality of the proposal. “Under federal law, the existing state water quality standards cannot simply be abandoned. There’s a process under federal law for repealing or replacing water quality standards and this bill doesn’t follow it,” she said.

This is the same issue that confronted the Legislature back in 2011, the last time that legislators sought to eliminate the wild rice sulfate standard. At that time, legislators learned that the state must have a scientific basis for amending or repealing a water quality standard, which prompted the Legislature to fund new research into the validity of the existing 10 mg/l standard. When that state-funded research largely confirmed the need for the standard, legislators prohibited the MPCA from enforcing the 10 mg/l standard and required that the agency develop a new scientifically-based standard, which resulted in the equation-based standard to which the taconite industry is equally opposed.

Hoffman said the bill is being presented as a means of providing regulatory certainty surrounding sulfates, but she said it actually invites chaos by terminating an existing rulemaking process before it’s completed and eliminating an existing standard with no viable replacement.

“Now the EPA, even our diminished EPA under President Trump, isn’t going to approve such an obvious undoing of a protective water quality standard with no replacement. The only certainty associated with this bill is that it will bring on litigation,” said Hoffman.

Rather than eliminating the standard, Don Arnosti, with the Isaak Walton League of Minnesota, urged legislators to invest in developing new clean-up technology that could provide more cost-effective treatment of sulfate and other similar pollutants. Arnosti noted that the taconite industry was created through a state-funded effort in cooperation with the University of Minnesota to develop the processing technology that made taconite a viable source of iron ore.

“We would love to see the Chamber [of Commerce], with their business expertise, step forward and offer to partner with NRRI or the U of M. Let’s come up with more cost-effective ways to ensure that sulfate does not get into our waters in a way that harms the environment. We’ve already spent nearly a decade on this issue. Maybe five or ten years from now, we could have a technology we could export to the globe,” he said.

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