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Minnesota Legislature, Supported By The Mining Industry, Votes To Weaken Water Standards

Approval of measure would threaten wild rice. Rep. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, “If wild rice no longer exists, we no longer exist.”

Water is life? Not so much in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Legislature, supported by the mining industry, voted to weaken water standards for sulfates in areas where wild rice grows. Wild rice is the essential Ojibwe food. The Senate voted Monday to withdraw the water standards that have been in place for a decade by a vote of 38 to 28.

The Associated Press reports that senators also voted to add $500,000 for restoration work to the bill, which passed the House 78-45 last week, so the legislation will have to go back to the House before it goes to Gov. Mark Dayton. The governor has not publicly said whether he’ll sign or veto the measure.

Last month when the bill (without the restoration funding) was before the House, Rep. Peggy Flanagan spoke against weakening the water standards. “If wild rice no longer exists, we no longer exist,” she said. Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, is a Democrat-Farm-Labor candidate for Lt. Governor. “This is our home. We can’t go anywhere else. So if manoomin goes away, we go away. Maybe that’s the point.”

Mining companies, as well as Northern Minnesota communities, complained that the standards were too stringent and expensive. Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, told Ag Week that he worked with representatives from mining areas that are the focus of the bill. He said the bill will "continue to protect wild rice" while allowing mines to remain working.PolyMet Mining Corporation has proposed a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lake. The mining permit has not yet been issued, but under the old rules, the company would have had to treat the open pit mine and tailings indefinitely to remove sulfate from the water. According to the Star Tribune that would have cost the company about $1 billion. “Without a sulfate standard, the cost would be significantly less,” the Star Tribune reported.The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had already said it would bring together scientists and policymakers “to determine an alternative path forward.” And other critics have said that an outright repeal of the water standards could violate the federal Clean Water Act.One problem is that the old water quality standard was not enforced. “Up until now, the standard has maintained that sulfate should not enter wild rice waters in higher quantities than 10 parts per million,” according to a blog post from Honor The Earth. “The new proposed rule would make a different standard for every lake and wetland with wild rice – an unbelievably complicated and costly rule to implement.” That is the rule that the Senate proposed be withdrawn. The Minnesota Center For Environmental Advocacy, in addition to their outward support of Flanagan is also asking Gov. Mark Dayton to veto the bill, stating in a tweet, "Protect Wild Rice! Tell @GovMarkDayton to VETO #mnleg bill to strip protection for MN's state grain, despite clear science that sulfate pollution is a problem."

An op-ed by Kevin Dupuis, president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and Kathryn Hoffman, CEO, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, in the Star Tribune, called the legislation ‘a sell out to the very identity of Minnesotans.’

“Wild rice waters in Minnesota cannot go unprotected indefinitely. Sulfate regulations cannot be delayed or weakened. Tribes and environmental advocates might be the most vocal protectors of wild rice, but we know that the great unifier of Minnesotans is our water. Water is who we are,” wrote Dupuis and Hoffman. “It is not too late. Minnesotans — lovers of wild rice, lakes and all waters — we must unite to protect our very identity.”