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Business North - The Daily Briefing - Business Newspaper Online
Wild Rice legislation could have 'strong unintended consequences'
PHOTO: Rep. Carly Melin
Putting the brakes on a controversial sulfate rule will be difficult or maybe impossible, state officials told a state legislative hearing last week, because it could trigger a losing battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Their testimony was in response to House Bill 1000 introduced by Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, which would prohibit the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) from enforcing the so-called “Wild Rice rule.” In effect since 1973, it was ignored for almost four decades and only recently received much attention.
Supporters of the rule say it is needed to protect wild rice stands by limiting the amount of sulfate to 10 milligrams per liter around the wild rice stands. Opponents say there’s a lack of scientific evidence to prove the “10 Rule” is necessary. Further, they contend it could put taconite mines out of business.
“It only became an issue when people tried to stop PolyMet,” Melin said at a Feb. 24 hearing before the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committee. Ironically, PolyMet has developed a reverse osmosis filter capable of meeting the standard. But its proposed copper-nickel-precious metals mine would use substantially less water than a taconite processing plant, making treatment much less expensive.
“It will bring down the taconite mining industry,” Melin said. It also could substantially raise the water treatment costs at municipal plants statewide, affecting industries in numerous communities, according to Tony Kwilas, director of Environmental Policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
Melin’s bill and companion legislation (SF1007) sponsored by Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, contend the MPCA should not enforce the rule until it complies with another provision of a 2011 state law. It requires the MPCA to specifically identify the state’s wild rice waters. That list of waters might not be available until 2017 or 2018.
There could be strong unintended consequences if the legislation is approved, testified MPCA Assistant Commissioner Rebecca Flood. The MPCA has a responsibility to implement federal water quality rules. If the agency refuses, EPA officials could strip the MPCA of its authority, she said, preventing it from renewing old permits or issuing new ones.
Environmentalists made the same argument, contending HF1000 and SF1007 both conflict with federal law. If the MPCA is prevented from performing its federal responsibilities, said Kevin Reuther, legal director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the EPA could order the state agency to take corrective action or EPA could assume permitting authority in Minnesota.
Those arguments provided little consolation to business representatives.
Treating water to meet the 10 Rule is very expensive, said Kurt Anderson, director of land management at Minnesota Power. If the sulfate limit is set too low, it would drastically impact businesses and produce no environmental benefit, he said.
Rob Beranek, senior environmental regulatory specialist at Cliffs Natural Resources, said the health of wild rice could be affected by a variety of hydrological factors beyond sulfate, and they have not been studied.
The bill remains in committee and has not yet advanced to the Minnesota Senate.
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