By Lee Bloomquist
That’s what northeastern Minnesota’s mining industry says is needed to best determine how to preserve Minnesota’s wild rice.
For years, debate has dragged on over how to protect wild rice, a significant spiritual, cultural and nutritional crop important to Minnesota tribes and the economy.
Still unresolved is at what level to set the state sulfate standard for water that’s discharged into lakes and rivers that contain wild rice.
In 1973, based on research done in the late 1930s and early 1940s by Dr. John Moyle, a state sulfate standard of 10 milligrams per liter (10 parts per million) was established. Moyle was a Minnesota Department of Conservation biologist.
However, controversy over exactly what the sulfate standard should be and the impact of sulfate on wild rice has in recent years become one of the state’s most debated topics.
The issue remains critical because permitted water discharges from northeastern mining operations and municipal wastewater plants throughout the state are sources of sulfate. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) sponsored and independent research on 31 treatment technologies has found numerous challenges in removing sulfate from water. The most effective, but hugely expensive, is reverse osmosis.
Industry officials say installing reverse osmosis sulfate reducing equipment at mining operations, municipal waste water plants and power plants, could cost industry and taxpayers hundred of millions of dollars.
Yet MPCA studies and other modern research agree on one finding. It’s high levels of sulfide, not sulfate, which poses potential danger to wild rice.
Sulfate in sediment water where wild rice is rooted, can be converted to sulfide by bacteria.
“Researchers agree sulfate has little to no direct impact on wild rice,” read a Governor’s Task Force on Wild Rice report issued Jan. 3, 2019. “Instead, the pollutant that impacts wild rice is sulfide in the sediment pore water.”
A 2014 Minnesota Chamber of Commerce study, confirmed by the MPCA in other work, determined that sulfate is not toxic at levels encountered in Minnesota.
Sulfide – but not in all bodies of water – pose a danger to wild rice, according to the task force report.
“As a general rule, as sulfide levels in the sediment increase, the likely presence of wild rice decreases,” said the report. “However, there are wild rice waters that do not fit this relationship where wild rice thrives,” said the report.
“The rate at which sulfate is converted to sulfide, and how wild rice plants are affected is an active area of scientific discussion,” the report claimed.
A recent MPCA study found that sulfide levels above 120 milligrams per liter in the pore water (sediment waste) where wild rice grows, has a detrimental effect on the presence and density of wild rice. Sulfide levels can be affected by the amount of sulfate in the water, the amount of organic carbon in the sediment and the amount of iron in the sediment.
So, after years of differing studies and disparate findings, there’s still disagreement on what a standard should be or how it would be established.
There is some agreement, however, that the task force report is a solid starting point for further discussion.
“From my perspective, I think the task force report came out with some good recommendations,” said John Rebrovich, United Steelworkers District 11 assistant director and a task force member. “Obviously, there are some differing opinions on the science and what should be done, but I think let’s start with the low hanging fruit and do some restoration. Getting these 500-year (rain) storms every other year kind of wipes out a crop.”
Mining industry representatives say the Jan. 3 task force report is a step forward.
“It’s positive that everybody worked toward finding some agreed upon ways to protect wild rice, because I think everybody from every walk of life agrees that it should be protected,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, which represents non-ferrous (base and precious metals) mining companies in the state. “It’s just how to do it without causing a cost to industry that may or may not benefit wild rice.”
The report offers seven recommendations:
• Create a wild rice stewardship council (including members from a wide range of interests).
• Expand and support tribal consultation (pass legislation to require and fund tribal consultation and tribal-state relations training).
• Promote sulfate minimization - (MPCA should develop sulfate minimization guidance for water permit holders).
• Improve MPCA variance process - (Improve effectiveness, efficiency and clarity of variance process.)
• Provide point source implementation grants for sulfate (Use a grant program to fund local government infrastructure projects to meet requirements, protect water quality and reduce sulfate discharges).
• Declare the first week of September as Wild Rice Week (Conduct activities to raise awareness of wild rice value).
• Invest in wild rice - (Legislature appropriate adequate resources to achieve the above recommendations).
The mining industry supports formation of a wild rice stewardship council and inclusion of all stakeholders on the council, including tribes, government, industry and other stakeholders.
Ideas about wild rice restoration and other recommendations in the report are wonderful and parties from all perspectives should continue talking, said Ongaro. However, imposing significant costs on industry and communities to meet the widely-debated standard without supporting modern scientific evidence, shouldn’t occur, he said.
“A lot of work is ahead in addressing the real issue,” said Ongaro. “Over the last seven years, all the Mining Minnesota member companies have recognized the importance of wild rice to Minnesota’s culture and the economy and support protecting it through modern water quality standards, but they have to be based on science. We support treatment technologies if needed. But again, any new standard that’s developed has to be done with modern scientific research and the appropriate public consultation.”
PolyMet Mining, the proposed copper-nickel project near Hoyt Lakes is in the final stage of permitting and plans to start construction this year.
PolyMet will meet the 10-milligram per liter standard, said Ongaro.
“In the non-ferrous world, there’s only one company (PolyMet) out there and they just got their new permits,” said Ongaro. “They had to demonstrate that they would meet the standard and they did.”
Northeastern Minnesota’s taconite plants, which produce iron ore pellets used to make steel, want to protect wild rice, said Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.
But the industry wants all potential factors and solutions to be examined and considered.
“We want to be doing it in a way that’s going to actually benefit wild rice,” said Johnson. “What often comes up is that there are so many factors they’re not sure exactly sure which factor is the culprit.”
Environmental groups and tribes have pointed at industry, including taconite plants and electric power producers, as a major source of sulfate. Industry says a number of factors beyond sulfate may be affecting wild rice habitat, such as water levels, pH content, invasive species and water temperature.
Even beavers, which build dams in bodies of water, are a problem, Johnson said.
“Beavers are surprisingly problematic,” she said. “They can inadvertently make the water in lakes and marshes where wild rice is growing fluctuate at such a level that wild rice doesn’t grow.”
Having a variety of stakeholders participate in the task force was important, she noted.
“The best thing that came out of it was seeing all the stakeholders around the table to take a holistic look at the issue to discuss the financial and the actual causes of wild rice habitat degradation. If there are some financial avenues the state can take that everybody around the table could discuss on how to best spend those resources, it would be good. It behooves us to investigate further any kind of wild rice habitat concerns.”
Minnesota is the only state and U.S. territory that has a sulfate standard.
In Minnesota, the issue isn’t restricted just to the northeast, Johnson noted.
“Ironically, it’s not just something that affects northeastern Minnesota. It would affect us in a different way than the rest of the state, but the sulfate levels in the water itself is much higher in southwestern Minnesota, primarily due to the type of rock and geography in that part of the state.”
In Wisconsin, the state DNR is having success restoring wild rice habitat by removing invasive species, maintaining water levels and re-seeding, Johnson said.
“They are seeing some significant turnaround with the wild rice habitat restoration efforts that they are conducting. I think that is something we should consider too.”
Where the issue goes next isn’t totally clear.
Mining industry representatives say all stakeholders can use the report as a foundation to continue talking.
“The most appropriate and prudent thing at this point would be to evaluate the recommendations made by the task force and work with other stakeholders to ensure that some of those recommendations are taken into consideration and pursued,” said Johnson. “But I really think it’s going to be up to all stakeholders at this point.”
Additional debate and proposals are likely to emerge during the current Minnesota legislative session.
Mining industry officials say they want to work openly with all stakeholders on a Wild Rice Stewardship Council and move toward science-based solutions.
“We don’t really know what we don’t know,” said Johnson. “Until we know what we know, we’re still kind of scrambling to try to figure out what’s going on with wild rice. To point fingers this early in the process without the required scientific research, I don’t think that’s necessarily the right path either. I think there needs to be continued research into what those factors might be. To get it done right is more important than to get it done quickly.”
“As different solutions are proposed, everybody’s going to have to have an open dialogue and discussion about what they are, whether they provide benefit and what the impacts are both cost and otherwise,” said Ongaro. “Until such time, the state shouldn’t require or impose those costs until it’s determined that the technology needed and the cost of the technology needed to meet the standard actually benefits wild rice.”
Meanwhile, the debate goes on.
“Before we order industry or communities to put in millions of dollars in technology–reverse osmosis is the only way to handle it–I think we have to A. figure out what’s causing it for sure and B. once we extract the sulfate, what to do with it,” said Rebrovich. “If we get everybody together, I think we can get some solutions rather than just pounding on each other.”