Litigation: Preserving Minnesota’s Wild Rice Sulfate Standard

What was WaterLegacy’s role?

On December 17, 2010, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (Chamber), acting on behalf of PolyMet and several taconite mining companies, sued in Minnesota state district court to prevent the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) from enforcing the wild rice sulfate standard. The Chamber claimed in its complaint that enforcing the wild rice standard to monitor or limit sulfate from mining affecting natural stands of wild rice exceeded the MPCA’s authority, violated equal protection, and violated due process as unconstitutionally “vague.”

WaterLegacy asked the district court for permission to intervene and defend the wild rice standard. WaterLegacy’s motion to intervene emphasized both the interests of our members in protecting wild rice and that those interests were not represented by the MPCA:

WaterLegacy has advocated that the wild rice sulfate standard of 10 mg/L be preserved for natural wild rice, that this limit be enforced on a uniform basis year-round rather than seasonally, and that the Wild Rice Rule be applied to protect a wide range of areas where natural wild rice is present or has historically grown.
The district court granted WaterLegacy’s motion to intervene as a full party to defend the wild rice sulfate standard.

What was the result of the litigation?

On May 10, 2012, Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret M. Marrinan granted motions for summary judgment made by WaterLegacy and the MPCA and upheld Minnesota’s rule protecting natural stands of wild rice from sulfate pollution in excess of 10 milligrams per liter. The district court denied all claims made by the Chamber on their merits and with prejudice, so the case could not be filed again.

Judge Marrinan’s decision made the following important conclusions:

  • The Wild Rice Rule does not violate due process. It is not unconstitutionally vague, nor is the application of the rule arbitrary and capricious.
  • MPCA’s application of the wild rice sulfate rule is reasonably related to achieving the legitimate goal of protecting Minnesota’s environment.
  • The MPCA’s application of the wild rice sulfate standard to protect naturally growing wild rice in ambient waters of the state is legally valid because it is consistent with the plain language of the water quality standard. Minn. R. 7050.0224, subp. 2.
  • The MPCA’s application of the wild rice sulfate rule to protect waters with natural stands of wild rice is also consistent with a number of established legislative policies and statutory duties, among them the duty to ensure that the State of Minnesota maintains its responsibility to administer the federal Clean Water Act in Minnesota.”
The Chamber appealed the Judge’s decision.

On December 17, 2012, the district court decision granting summary judgment in favor of the agency and WaterLegacy was affirmed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals!

The Court of Appeals ruled the Chamber’s lawsuit was improper under established administrative procedures (WaterLegacy had also made technical arguments to dismiss the Chamber lawsuit to the district court). The Court of Appeals found the following facts:

  • The agency adopted the Wild Rice Rule in 1973 to protect and support the growth of wild rice in Minnesota, and to comply with Clean Water Act requirements set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Recognizing the importance of wild rice in Minnesota, the legislature subsequently declared wild rice to be the official state grain.
  • The agency adopted the rule’s 10 mg/L standard based on recommendations by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which found that sulfate concentrations above that level are a “serious detriment to the natural and cultivated growth of wild rice.”
WaterLegacy Counsel noted in news media interviews that the Court of Appeals decision was one more victory for the wild rice sulfate standard. Attorney Paula Maccabee explained, “Little by little, I think we’re reclaiming the idea that Minnesota can protect wild rice and other natural resources through regulation, and that’s an important thing.”