Scientists explain that Minnesota’s Existing Sulfate Limit is Needed and Reasonable and that the MPCA’s Proposed Equation Would Not Protect Wild Rice.

Research by Dr. John Pastor and other scientists at the University of Minnesota in Duluth has undermined the MPCA’s theory that higher levels of sulfate pollution should be allowed in individual waters that have high levels of iron. 

READ Dr. John Pastor’s 2016 Annual Report on The Biogeochemical Habitat of Wild Rice:

During the course of these experiments, wild rice roots in tanks with more than 50 mg/L sulfate had become blackened. In contrast, plants grown in the low sulfate treatments had orange stains on the roots throughout the annual life cycle (Fig. 1). Using SEM elemental scans, we identified the black plaques as iron sulfide (FeS) plaques whereas the orange stains had iron but no sulfide and are most likely iron (hydr)oxides. . .

After two years, sulfate amendments had the greatest effect, reducing production as in the first experiment regardless of iron amendment . . . While we cannot yet conclude from this experiment that iron has a strong depressive effect on wild rice growth via FeS plaques on roots, we can conclude that iron has no beneficial effect by reducing the toxicity of sulfide.. 

Plants with the black FeS plaques on their roots produced fewer and less viable seeds, perhaps because the plaques potentially impair the uptake of phosphorus and nitrogen.

READ the Star Tribune Associated Press article from July 19, 2016: 

[Dr. Pastor] said his research undercuts the MPCA's theory that higher concentrations of iron in water protect wild rice because they reduce sulfides. He said he's found that much of the iron sulfide that precipitates out of the water forms plaques on the roots of wild rice plants that hamper their ability to produce seeds. . . So he said it's premature for the MPCA to conclude that its model for the role of iron is correct. Established science shows that the existing 10 parts-per-million sulfate standard protects wild rice, he said, so the safest course is to stick with that.

READ the Duluth News Tribune article from July 19, 2016:

Paula Maccabee, attorney for the environmental group WaterLegacy, said the PCA appears to be ignoring new research that shows iron may not play any beneficial role in reducing the impact of sulfate. That research, by Prof. John Pastor at the University of Minnesota Duluth and funded by Sea Grant, concluded there is no buffering impact by iron on the sulfate/sulfide conversion.

"We already know that the existing sulfate limit is effective and reasonable. But PCA, ignoring evidence that the equation they are developing is flawed, continues down this path and away from protecting wild rice," Maccabee said. "They are developing this very complex and flawed process based on pressure from the mining industry and Iron Range lawmakers when their primary concern should be protecting wild rice."

READ the technical opinion of U. of M. Duluth biology professor emeritus Dr. David Schimpf: 

I believe that a new standard is not the default position, but that the existing standard is the default position. . . 1) the proposal redefines "protect wild rice” into a much weaker sense than that of the existing standard . . . The draft proposal would allow any of the non-zero-density stands to be potentially reduced in abundance through elevated SO4-2 [sulfate] release if they have enough reactive Fe [iron] and not too much organic C [carbon].


For Years, WaterLegacy has Opposed Pressure by Polluters and MPCA Proposals to Eliminate Minnesota’s Existing Wild Rice Sulfate Limit

WaterLegacy Commentary in Star Tribune (December 2015)

READ WaterLegacy Advocacy Director and Counsel, Paula Maccabee's Commentary in the Star Tribune

Counterpoint: Yes, it's time — to uphold, not raise, sulfate limits:

"Pollution already has decimated wild rice, degraded some northern Minnesota streams and lakes so they can’t support fish, and harmed Minnesota’s children. It is bad policy and just plain wrong to let the mining industry decide what limits should be placed on sulfate and other pollutants."

READ WaterLegacy's February 2014 Star Tribune Counterpoint: The science is clear: Protect our wild rice, a Star Tribune article by WaterLegacy Advocacy Director and Counsel, Paula Maccabee:

"The Earth is not flat, there is no tooth fairy and sulfate limits are required to protect natural stands of wild rice."

VIEW WaterLegacy Advocacy to Preserve and Enforce Minnesota’s Wild Rice Sulfate Standard

Paula Maccabee, Advocacy Director/Counsel for WaterLegacy testified at the Minnesota Legislature against proposals to block enforcement of the wild rice standard. WaterLegacy testified that enforcement of Minnesota’s existing wild rice sulfate standard is required by sound science and by the federal Clean Water Act.

View WaterLegacy’s testimony opposing Minnesota legislation to weaken the wild rice standard:


WaterLegacy summarized the grounds for our concerns about the legislative proposal:

First, the scientific evidence gathered as a result of taxpayer-funded research demonstrates clearly that interference with enforcement of the existing Minnesota wild rice sulfate standard would be unreasonable and unscientific. Second, legislation preventing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) from fulfilling its obligations to control sulfate pollution and list wild rice impaired waters would conflict with the Clean Water Act, which is governing federal law. As the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised in 2011, failure of our State to comply with the Clean Water Act and enforce the wild rice sulfate standard could result in Minnesota’s loss of state authority to control water pollution.

WaterLegacy also testified at the Minnesota Senate Energy and Environment Committee on March 27, 2015. This testimony also emphasized, "Wild rice researchers and independent scientific experts believe the MPCA's new formula is scientifically indefensible."

READ WaterLegacy's complete testimony and materials provided to Minnesota Senate Committee Members. 

Despite testimony and comments by citizens across the state, legislation in 2015 and 2016 included provisions that block enforcement of the wild rice sulfate standard and block listing of wild rice waters until new rules are written. 

This legislation, along with the undue influence of mining special interests in the regulation of mining pollution, prompted WaterLegacy to file a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strip the State of authority to regulate mining pollution under the Clean Water Act.

READ more about WaterLegacy’s Clean Water Act Petition to the EPA here.

READ Congresswoman McCollum’s February 26, 2015 statement to the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

"Let me be clear, without full consultation and consent with impacted tribal nations, the EPA should not even consider lowering water quality standards for wild rice. EPA should be promulgating a wild rice water quality rule across the Great Lakes basin."

Additional Background & Analysis

In June 2014, the MPCA prepared a preliminary analysis of the wild rice sulfate standard study for a highly-constrained scientific peer review. Peer reviewers had no chance to comment on whether Minnesota’s existing 10 mg/L wild rice sulfate limit was needed, reasonable or more protective than the MPCA’s theoretical equation.  Analysis for review by an independent group of scientists, what is called a “Scientific Peer Review,” the MPCA also provided a list of “Charge Questions” for the scientists to answer.

WaterLegacy provided a detailed set of comments on the MPCA’s Preliminary Analysis of the Wild Rice Sulfate Standard Study, a written comment on MPCA’s suggested Charge Questions for the Peer Review Panel and a presentation to the Peer Review Panel, which met on August 13-14, 2014. Read WaterLegacy’s comments here:


WaterLegacy Litigation (2011- 2012) to Preserve Minnesota Wild Rice Sulfate Rule

WaterLegacy Victory Protects Wild Rice Sulfate Standard in Court of Appeals

On December 17, 2012, two years after the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce sued to prevent the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) from enforcing the wild rice sulfate standard to protect natural stands of wild rice, the Minnesota Court of Appeals dismissed the Chamber’s claims in their entirety!

The Court of Appeals  ruled that the Chamber had brought no case properly before it to challenge the wild rice rule. Read the Court of Appeals Decision Affirming Dismissal of the Lawsuit.

WaterLegacy Counsel noted that the Court of Appeals decision was one more victory for the wild rice sulfate standard. (Read Duluth News Tribune – Minnesota Appeals Court Backs Wild Rice Standard). 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.” (Read MPR -- Minn. Court Affirms Wild Rice Protection)

District Court Victory

On May 10, 2012, Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret M. Marrinan granted motions for summary judgment made by intervenor WaterLegacy and by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (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 Minnesota Chamber of Commerce in its lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s wild rice sulfate standard.

In her decision, Judge Marrinan ruled, “The Wild Rice Rule does not violate due process. It is not unconstitutionally vague, nor is the application of the rule arbitrary and capricious.” The Court noted, “In approving the wild rice standard, the EPA concluded that the standard is consistent with the federal Clean Water Act. Plaintiff’s [Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s] assertion that the wild rice sulfate standard is in any way inconsistent with the Clean Water Act lacks merit.” Judge Marrinan ruled that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Complaint should be dismissed “in its entirety with prejudice and on the merits.” (See Judge Marrinan’s Decision.)

The Chamber appealed the district court’s decision on June 1, 2012. On August 6, 2012, WaterLegacy filed our Appeals Brief asking the Court of Appeals to affirm the district court and uphold the wild rice standard. A quick summary of our argument: The wild rice standard is constitutional; enforcement of the standard is well within the scope of authority of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and, in fact, is among the duties of the MPCA under state and federal clean water laws. The wild rice standard was obviously intended to protect natural stands of wild rice as well as cultivated paddy rice, and the Complaint filed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, representing the mining industry, should be dismissed in its entirety and on the merits

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.


WaterLegacy – Working to Protect the Wild Rice Sulfate Standard Since 2010

In November 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the MPCA that, under the federal Clean Water Act, the Agency was required to enforce its existing wild rice sulfate standard. 

Lobbyists for the mining industry pressured the MPCA to weaken the wild rice sulfate standard and WaterLegacy prepared an issues brief, Preserve Wild Rice Standards, based on research by citizen scientist Len Anderson (shown here finding impaired wild rice in a polluted segment of the St. Louis River) explaining why  the MPCA should maintain the 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) sulfate limit to protect wild rice..

WaterLegacy has worked since then in collaboration with other conservation groups, tribal staff and tribal members to protect clean water and wild rice and to preserve Minnesota’s existing wild rice sulfate standard

Advocating that Sulfate-Polluted Waters be Listed as Wild Rice Impaired Waters

Since 2012, 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. 

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

  • Natural wild rice has enormous ecological value -- protecting water quality, reducing algae blooms, and providing habitat for fish, mammals and wildfowl.

  • Minnesota’s wild rice standard limiting sulfate pollution is needed to protect tribal resources, natural food and a critical ecosystem. 

  • 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.

  • 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.



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