Judge: Reject MPCA's wild rice rule

At an October rally in Virginia, representatives of unions, business, municipalities and state government voiced opposition to the MPCA's wild rice proposal.

A state administrative law judge has recommended the so-called “wild rice rule” proposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) be rejected.

MPCA’s proposal was controversial because of the high cost it might impose on taconite companies and municipal sewage treatment plants to reduce sulfate, which is converted into sulfide by bacteria. Although studies conducted in the 1930s and 1940s said high sulfide levels harm wild rice, opponents of the rule said the agency has not proven that reducing sulfate in wild rice waters will improve harvests.

The concerns went beyond the Iron Range. The Duluth-based Western Lake Superior Sanitary District estimated it would take a $500 million investment to meet the proposed standard.

A 1973 rule limited the water discharge to 10 milligrams of sulfate per liter. But MPCA researchers said sulfate does not convert to the same level of sulfide at every location. Because local conditions vary, the agency proposed to individualize acceptable sulfate discharges to each body of water.

Administrative Law Judge Laurasue Schlatter disapproved the MPCA’s proposed equation-based sulfate standard, Thursday’s ruling said. “In addition, the proposed equation-based sulfate standard is not rationally related to the Agency’s objective in this proceeding, and is unconstitutionally void for vagueness,” it added. 

Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association, said members are relieved by the finding. A more detailed statement is to be released soon.

The ruling was made following the conclusion of six public hearings and the subsequent receipt of 1,500 written comments.

Schlatter also said the MPCA has not succeeded in building an atmosphere of trust regarding its proposed  rule, and the Minnesota Native American community does not feel its concerns about wild rice have been heard.

“The Administrative Law Judge concludes that … the proposed rule will not benefit wildlife, or the Objibwe, Dakota or other people who harvest or depend on wild rice for food, spiritual or cultural nourishment, or as a means of earning money,” the ruling said.

The MPCA also erred by proposing the rule before investigating wastewater treatment costs and alternatives – a complaint that also was raised by area community groups, business representatives and individuals – according to Schlatter.

The proposal also was opposed by environmentalists. According to the group WaterLegacy, MPCA’s proposed equation standard would not protect wild rice nor clarify where the standard should be enforced. Friends of the Boundary Waters and the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe complained the MPCA failed to identify certain waters as wild rice waters. Meanwhile, the Mining Minnesota trade group complained the MPCA was over-designating waters.

“There were few sections of the proposed rule that were not opposed by any member of the public,” the ruling said.

Schlatter advised the agency against resubmitting the rule for approval of changes unless it addresses the defects in the wild rice water sulfate standard and the list of wild rice waters.