Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Wild rice standard

Political meddling undermines credibility of the MPCA

Posted

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.

Comments

3 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Steve Jacobson

Boy Marshall have you drank the punch.

Yes, if you understand what it takes to meet the 10 mg/l. It will cost everyone on any city water supply thousands a year to comply. That probably does not compute with anyone who lives off the grid and utilizes a biffy!

Wednesday, November 1
Minnesota Miners

The environmentalists do not even like the new sulfate rule. They are opposing it and want to fall back to the old rule. The new sulfate/sulfide rule is based on a flawed process and could ultimately cost communities and industry across Minnesota millions if not billions of dollars. There is plenty of time to review the current rule and make it right.

Thursday, November 2
Lee Peterson

The above comments are broad and fact free. It' a dismal and unhelpful trend. And the first one is personally disrespectful, something that, sadly, is accepted as OK by Republicans when they are the ones doing it. But, hear them wail when someone else makes an offhand comment about them.

One's ignorance is certainly advertised by slamming people who live "off the grid". It takes brains and effort to be able to produce your own electricity and not have to be hooked to the power company. I give those folks credit!

It should be interesting for the above two commenters to note that PolyMet has guaranteed in their permit submission that they WILL meet the current 10 mgl sulfate standard. Think about it.

Tuesday, November 7