The Iron Mining Association of Minnesota remains troubled by Governor Dayton’s veto of the second piece of wild rice legislation that came to his desk at the end of the 2018 legislative session. The veto was truly a disappointment to the numerous advocates who tirelessly worked to deliver the Governor a bill that would provide clarity on the state’s wild rice water quality standard that has been a point of contention for nearly a decade. The vetoed bill represented an effort to find common ground between stakeholders by developing a task force to look at wild rice science that has been fervently debated. It would have also provided assurances for regulated entities that cost-effective treatment technology must be available before they are required to expend funds for sulfate treatment. Industrial businesses and communities remain in limbo, uncertain about the exponential costs that would be unavoidable if the current standard is enforced.
Those on the periphery may wonder why a task force was needed and why the Legislature advanced legislation when the state had already spent $1.5 million on sulfate studies, convened a wild rice advisory committee for over five years, and underwent an effort to promulgate a new sulfate rule. The answer is that from a regulatory perspective, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is still largely in the same place as it was a decade ago. An Administrative Law Judge twice rejected the proposal MPCA had developed to replace the rule, which was the culmination of years of work. And albeit for different reasons, the new proposal was largely criticized by parties on both sides of this issue.
Still, a wealth of new science has been developed and it is incumbent on the MPCA to find the right way to implement it. The MPCA concurs with studies that have overwhelmingly shown sulfate in the water is not harmful to wild rice. In fact, updated science shows wild rice is capable of thriving with sulfate levels up to 150 times more than the existing standard. However, there are differing viewpoints about whether sulfate impacts wild rice when it turns to sulfide in the sediment, which need to be better understood. Research findings have called into question MPCA’s proposed safe level of sulfide by showing that the agency overestimated the impact of sulfide by about ten times for the most sensitive parts of the wild rice plant. When accounting for the mitigating impacts of iron, that number increased to over 18 times.
These results should be carefully evaluated because they line up better with observations of sulfate, sulfide and wild rice in the natural environment. For example, the densest natural wild rice lake in Minnesota, Lake Monongalia, has shown a high sulfide value of 1,370 parts per billion (ppb), over 11 times greater than MPCA’s proposed safe sulfide value of 120 ppb.
It is these observations and findings that tell the compelling story of why more work is needed. Now is not the time to fall back on an existing standard, which has been recognized as obsolete time and again, just because it has been difficult to find a path by which to move forward. This is why, despite our disappointment with the veto, we are encouraged that Governor Dayton seems to agree more work is needed.
Concurrent with the veto, Governor Dayton issued an Executive Order establishing a wild rice task force. Of course, the task force envisioned by the Governor and the Legislature don’t look exactly the same. The legislature’s proposed task force was supported by the Iron Mining Association for several reasons. It had created more spots for academic and independent scientific experts — extra minds to analyze the science. It would have provided for unlimited representation by tribal nations — a key stakeholder in the wild rice debate. And, the legislature’s proposal had a role for both the Governor’s office as well as the Legislature — something needed because the Dayton Administration’s MPCA has not been able to come up with a valid proposal on their own to date.
The IMA is cautious but hopeful as we move forward under the framework set by the Dayton Administration. We encourage the MPCA to take a fresh look at the science and make a meaningful effort to ensure that any wild rice regulatory standard is scientifically justified and can be explained by observations in Minnesota’s lakes and waterbodies. This is a second chance to bring the stakeholders together and address the state’s wild rice water quality standard — let’s use it wisely.