A resolution currently making the rounds of Iron Range city councils decrying the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s proposed new sulfate standard exposes the all-too familiar willingness of local elected officials to jump atop bandwagons about which they know little or nothing.
Unfortunately, the resolution’s sponsor, the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, or RAMS, has served only to misinform local officials through a campaign of unabashed scaremongering that rivals anything we’ve seen in the area in years. RAMS officials set the bandwagon rolling in late August with the claim that the adoption of a new so-called wild rice standard for sulfates would bankrupt every city on the Iron Range by forcing their wastewater treatment facilities to invest in massively expensive reverse osmosis technology to reduce sulfate levels to meet the standard. RAMS officials claim they’re working to save area cities from this outcome.
Yet the scaremongering by RAMS suggests an astonishing lack of understanding of virtually every aspect of this issue.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it ignores the fact that Minnesota already has a strict wild rice standard for sulfates, of 10 milligrams per liter, which has been a part of state rules since 1973. That standard hasn’t bankrupted anything other than the patience of Indian tribes who have protested the continuing decline of their single most important source of traditional sustenance. The new flexible standard that the MPCA is proposing would, in many cases, allow for higher sulfate discharges than currently allowed by state rule, depending on the iron content of the receiving water and other factors.
It’s true that the MPCA has only attempted to enforce the current standard in recent years, which is what prompted the mining industry to push for a revision. It’s also true that the agency is likely to face greater pressure to enforce their new rule, if only because the lack of enforcement over the decades has become an issue. But here’s the reality— if RAMS were successful in halting progress on the new rule, the MPCA’s only alternative would be to begin enforcing the strict rule already on the books.
RAMS officials appear equally obtuse about the standard-setting process itself. Had they investigated the matter, they would have learned that standards are supposed to be set based on science, not politics, nor on the cost of implementing the standard. So resolutions from cities decrying the potential costs of compliance, by law, must be ignored.
That’s not to suggest that the costs of implementation don’t matter. They do, just not at this stage of the process. The standard is essentially the ideal, set based on what is needed for protection of existing resources, be it clean water, healthy wild rice, or breathable air. That determination is made on science, not politics.
It is only after the standard is finalized that the regulatory agencies turn to the question of how to achieve the ideal— and that’s where real world considerations, such as cost, intervene. While the Clean Water Act remains a powerful piece of legislation, it was never designed to put industries out of business or push cities into bankruptcy. In fact, it specifically allows for variances in cases where the costs of meeting a standard will present undue financial burdens. That’s especially true for public facilities, such as wastewater treatment plants, where such variances are relatively easy to obtain. While RAMS officials have continuously cited the high cost of reverse osmosis as evidence of the MPCA’s desire to crush Iron Range communities, anyone familiar with how this all works, would recognize that the MPCA is building the evidentiary case to issue variances to all of them.
While such variances might increase costs marginally for treatment plants, they aren’t going to bankrupt cities or force communities to triple their water rates, as RAMS officials have suggested. That’s just hyperbole. RAMS officials either know that they are being disingenuous, or they don’t know what they’re talking about.
We suspect it’s the latter, but then at least RAMS officials can rest comfortably knowing that most of the local officials approving their resolutions know even less. Talk about the blind leading the blind.