ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota regulators announced proposed rule changes Monday designed to protect wild rice from sulfate pollution, but American Indian tribes and environmentalists criticized them as inadequate.
MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said the agency believes the proposed changes — coming after years of research and dozens of meetings — “are an innovative and precise approach to protecting wild rice.”
“The proposal also allows for flexibility in permitting for facilities that discharge to wild rice waters,” Stine said in a news release.
Native Americans consider wild rice a food source both sacred and crucial to their cultural identity. Minnesota imposed a water quality standard to protect wild rice from elevated levels of sulfate in 1973. That standard was based on observations that wild rice grew in waters with lower sulfate levels and did not grow in waters with elevated sulfate.
Debate over the largely unenforced standard flared during recent debate over proposed copper-nickel mining and pollution from existing iron mines. Mining interests and their legislative allies then said the standard was too restrictive.
The existing rule limits sulfate discharges into wild rice waters to 10 milligrams per liter. But based on new research indicating that sulfide in sediment is the main concern, the agency is proposing limiting sulfide in the sediment in which wild rice grows to 120 micrograms per liter.
Higher levels of iron in the sediment can lead to less sulfide, and higher levels of organic carbon can lead to more sulfide, the agency said, meaning no single level of sulfate can protect wild rice in all bodies of water. The proposed rules set up a process to identify the level of sulfate that protects each wild rice water.
Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, said she does not believe the revised rules will protect wild rice.
“I think they will be less protective than the existing rules,” Schuldt said Monday.
Schuldt said it has not been shown that iron necessarily will protect wild rice from sulfate pollution. “I do not believe it is scientifically defensible,” she said.
The environmental group WaterLegacy said it opposes replacing the current standard with “an unenforceable and unprotective equation.” The group also said it believes the agency’s proposal to list 1,300 wild rice waters excludes many waters identified by the Minnesota DNR and tribes.
“Our strong opinion is that protection of wild rice requires that Minnesota regulators have the backbone to enforce existing water quality rules, rather than finding a way to circumvent or weaken the rules whenever a powerful industry objects to controlling its pollution,” WaterLegacy said in a statement.
State Rep. Dan Fabian, a Republican from Roseau who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said the new standard could be “devastating for Minnesota.”
“In addition in hundreds of millions in increased costs for cities with wastewater treatment systems, it will discourage growth in mining and other job-creating industries in regions of the state still struggling with higher unemployment rates,” Fabian said in a statement.
Public hearings on the proposal begin in October.