Minnesota’s Wild Rice Sulfate Standard is Under Attack by the Mining Industry

Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard, enacted in 1973, limits sulfate pollution to 10 milligrams per liter in waters used for the production of wild rice during times that the wild rice is susceptible to harm.

As explained in WaterLegacy's Wild Rice Sulfate Fact Sheet Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard is based on scientific field research demonstrating that Minnesota’s self-sustaining natural stands of wild rice (manoomin) are found in waters containing no more than 10 milligrams per liter of sulfates.

Sulfate pollution from Minnesota’s leaking ore pits, waste rock pits and tailings basins exceeds Minnesota sulfate water quality standard that protects wild rice. U.S. Steel’s Keetac mine, plant and tailings basin were recently required to comply with Minnesota’s sulfate standard, although they were given several years to do so. [See WaterLegacy’s Keetac Water Pollution page for more information]. The Cliffs Erie Company has entered into a Consent Decree, in effect, admitting that sulfate pollution from the Dunka Mine and LTV Tailings Basin have exceeded legal limits.

Mining discharge containing high levels of sulfates in Northern Minnesota has impaired natural stands of wild rice for over 100 miles of the St. Louis River. [See map here.]

Wild Rice manhole cover, Minneapolis
Wild rice art in Minnesota: one of a series of eleven manhole covers

in downtown Minneapolis (designed by Kate Burke) - photo © Tom Magliery

Other Attacks on the Wild Rice Sulfate Standard

Minnesota’s mining industry and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce have launched a multi-pronged attack on the wild rice sulfate standard in the Legislature and the administrative process as well as in the courts:

Defending Wild Rice from Legislative Attack:

Mining industry lobbyists attempted to repeal the wild rice sulfate standard, or have the 10 milligrams per liter limit replaced by an arbitrary higher number that would not require mining facilities to limit their pollution.

These direct attempts to invalidate the wild rice standard were defeated, after the United States Environmental Protection Agency informed legislators that changes to state water quality standards could only be made on a scientific basis, in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

In 2011, the Minnesota Legislature adopted a Session Law requiring the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to conduct a study of the basis for the 10 milligrams per liter wild rice sulfate standard in order to provide a basis for changing the wild rice sulfate standard rule. The legislation appropriated $1.5 million for the study and required the MPCA to create an Advisory Group with various interests represented.

WaterLegacy’s counsel, Paula Maccabee, was appointed among the members of the Wild Rice Study Advisory Group.

Key Documents

For more information on the Wild Rice Study and Advisory Group process, see the MPCA’s web site on Minnesota’s Sulfate Standard to Protect Wild Rice.

Defending Wild Rice from Attacks in the Administrative Process:

Mining companies lobbied the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to apply a weaker sulfate standard to their wastewater discharge, rather than the 10 milligrams per liter limit contained in Minnesota rules. The MPCA took the position that, based on the scientific information available to date, the Agency cannot support a sulfate limit other than the 10 milligrams per liter standard currently in law.
In November 2010, WaterLegacy prepared an issues brief, Preserve Wild Rice Standards for the MPCA to support maintaining the 10 milligrams per liter sulfate limit. We also convened more than three dozen citizens, tribal members, ricers and wildlife advocates at MPCA offices in St. Paul and Duluth to involve the public in review and consideration of the wild rice sulfate standard.

WaterLegacy is working in collaboration with other conservation groups, tribal staff and tribal members to ensure that the Triennial Review process and the Wild Rice Advisory Group are based on unbiased science, careful field data and the understanding that the Clean Water Act protects wild rice as a designated use since 1975, while treaty rights protect wild rice since 1837.

Ensuring that Waters that Cannot Sustain Wild Rice are Listed as Impaired Waters

WaterLegacy, along with tribes and other partners, has advocated that MPCA must identify and list Minnesota waters that are impaired for ability to sustain wild rice and are in violation of Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standards.  Read WaterLegacy’s Comments on the 2012 Impaired Waters list

See the Minnesota Impaired Waters page for details.

Why Is Protecting Wild Rice (Manoomin) So Important for Minnesota?

  1. Natural wild rice has enormous ecological value -- protecting water quality, reducing algae blooms, and providing habitat for fish, mammals and wildfowl.
  2. Minnesota’s wild rice standard limiting sulfate pollution is needed to protect tribal resources, natural food and a critical ecosystem. 
  3. Preventing sulfate pollution is important to forestall increased methylmercury contamination of fish. Methylmercury in fish is a neurotoxin, especially affecting brain development in children and the unborn fetus.
  4. Enforcement of Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard will require existing and proposed mining facilities to collect and treat their polluted wastewater before discharging it to Minnesota wetlands, streams and rivers. Copper-nickel mines in sulfide-bearing rock near wild rice waters would need to collect, pump and treat water during mining operations and, potentially, for hundreds of years thereafter.

What Can You Do?

Citizen Action can help save Minnesota’s Natural Wild Rice.

  • Become informed and share information in your community.
  • Attend meetings and hearings that are open to the public.
  • Tell your government leaders that you expect them to protect Minnesota’s state grain, natural wild rice, from sulfate pollution.
  • Request strong rules to protect wild rice waters from sulfate pollution.
  • Check the Current Action page for opportunities to participate in important government decisions.


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