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.