OPINION | Native issues: Wild rice and sulfate levels


The 2011 Minnesota Legislature has adopted a two-pronged approach to American Indian concerns: allow increasing levels of water pollution to kill wild rice beds and expand gambling to wreck the tribal casino economy. It’s really breathtaking – and it’s a bipartisan effort.

The Republicans, who took over both houses of the Legislature in the 2010 elections, are leading the charge to put slot machines in every bar, restaurant and Porta-Potty across the North Star State.

DFLers – notably Sen. Tom Bakk, from Cook, and Rep. Tom Rukavina, from Virginia – are pushing the effort to loosen environmental regulations on behalf of the foreign-owned copper-nickel mining firms exploring in northeastern Minnesota.

In my August 2010 column, I wrote about the companies lining up to tear up the north woods in the pursuit of sulfide mining. This type of mining would be new to Minnesota; but it has a terrible track record of polluting surface waters with toxic metals across the western U.S.

In Minnesota, concern is growing that run-off from copper-nickel mine waste will pollute waterways that support wild rice beds. Since some of the mining projects are within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, Ojibwe tribal officials are closely monitoring the proposed extractive projects.

The current legislative wrangle – which is not getting as much attention as, say, efforts to build a new Vikings stadium – concerns the water protection standard for wild rice waters. I talked with Betsy Daub, policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, who explained that the standard is based on maximum sulfate levels, 10 milligrams per liter, in wild rice waters. The 10 milligram-limit came from studies conducted in the 1940s, by John Moyle, a field biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. The research, which biologists say still remains sound, found that sulfates settle in river and lake sediment; microbes change the sulfates into sulfides, which impede the root development of wild rice plants.

Daub said that there are separate House and Senate versions of the bill to change the regulation of sulfate levels in state waters.

“The House version raises the sulfate limits to 50 milligrams per liter – it’s just a number literally picked out of thin air – it sounded better, it’s not a science-based number,” said Daub, in apparent reference to the bill authored by Rukavina. “And the Senate version just basically suspends the enforcement of the existing [sulfate] limit until we have new studies that get a different number.”

I asked Rukavina where he got the new 50 milligrams number, and he claimed that “nobody knows when that number [10 milligrams] was put in rule.” And he said that Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) officials have testified that they never have enforced the sulfate level regulation.

“Every sewer plant in the state is breaking that law in wild rice areas, and you can’t apply it just because some people hate copper nickel mining,” responded Rep. Rukavina, who also said that the sulfate rule would hinder iron ore mining, an industry that has contributed to building Minnesota over 125 years.

Again, where did Rukavina get the 50 milligrams per liter standard specified in his legislation?

“I came up with a number as an interim number that seemed reasonable to me, based on [the PCA] using 40… at the Clay Boswell [power plant].”

Regarding the application of the 10 milligrams per liter rule to the sulfide mining projects up north, Rukavina wondered aloud “if there are people in the PCA, embedded in their bureaucracy, that don’t want to see copper-nickel mining.”

So, changing the water protection standard to 50 milligrams of sulfate per liter seemed reasonable?
“To me,” Rukavina replied, with a chuckle.

Towards the end of the brief spirited interview, Rukavina ramped up the rhetoric about the effort to enforce the sulfate level standard for copper-nickel projects: “This is nothing but a kick in the ass – and you can quote me on that – from bureaucrats who don’t like mining, and obviously you don’t either.” Then he called me a “bigot” – apparently because I raised the issue that foreign mining companies are poised to ravage Minnesota’s north woods.

A Northeast Minnesota Sulfide Mining Conference will take place 12:30 to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. Among the featured speakers is Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band. There will be a screening of the video “Precious Waters,” and an opportunity to ask questions. For information, contact the No Sulfide Mining Group at: nomnsulfidemining@gmail.com.

Some answers are needed before Minnesota gives the go-ahead to copper-nickel mining.