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Wild-rice hearing draws ire on Iron Range

Members of the Fond du Lac Band work through the wild rice on Dead Fish Lake near Saywer, Minn. Forum News Service file photo

VIRGINIA, Minn. — James Larson says he drives past a lake near his home in Aurora, Minnesota, and, if the rainfall has been right, sees a flourishing stand of wild rice.

"Every year it gets thicker and thicker and thicker," said Larson, a union employee at United Taconite.

Larson's comments joined a chorus of Iron Range residents, business and civic leaders who asked state Administrative Law Judge LauraSue Schlatter to reject the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's proposed rule to limit sulfate and sulfides in waters where wild rice grows.

The rules, which could impact taconite iron ore mining operations and wastewater treatment plants in areas where wild rice grows, were panned by Rangers as unnecessary, unproven and unreasonably expensive for cities and industry to meet.

"You're trying to fix things that really aren't problems," Larson said, noting the PCA concedes there's no guarantee that enforcing the rule would lead to more wild rice.

Larson was among about 100 people who attended the public hearing Tuesday night, Oct. 24, in the Mesabi Range College theater. Nearly all opposed the new wild-rice rule.

The PCA in August announced the new wild-rice sulfate standard, years in the works, developed after an old standard was deemed too vague and too difficult for industry to meet. A law in place since 1973 limited sulfate pollution in all Minnesota waters that hold wild rice to 10 parts per million. But the PCA said that rule was too broad — that some water could handle more and some waters less sulfate.

The new rules would instead study the water chemistry of each wild-rice lake and river to determine what sulfate level they could handle and still grow wild rice. The new rule, if enacted, will limit sulfides to 120 parts per billion.

There are about 1,300 lakes and rivers listed so far on the statewide list of wild-rice waters About 350 of those wild-rice waters are downstream of industries or cities that discharge sulfate and are the most likely to be affected by the changes.

Rule has 'potential to devastate'

Critics say the new rule could cause increased regulation for taconite iron ore processing operations and some municipal sewage treatment plants. If the new rules are applied and enforced, critics say it could cost millions of dollars for the mining companies to comply, spurring mine shutdowns and layoffs.

The rule would have "grave repercussions" to the region's economy, said Lory Fedo, president of the Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce. If enforced it "has the potential to devastate ... our way of life," she said.

Others urged the PCA to delay action on the rule until a cost analysis is complete sometime next year. Larry Sutherland, head of U. S. Steel's Minnesota mining operations in Keewatin and Mountain Iron, which employ some 1,700 miners, said adding reverse osmosis treatment to remove sulfate at Keetac's wastewater system could cost $200 million, a price tag that would be prohibitive for the plant to remain competitive in the global iron ore market.

"And you still can't guarantee any benefit," Sutherland noted, adding that the PCA concedes the error rate for each water body's sulfate standard could be as high as 20 percent.

Several environmental groups also oppose the new rules — but that's because they say they don't go far enough to protect wild rice from industrial pollution.

Supporters of strong wild-rice protection say the mines have long been given a free pass to release high levels of sulfate into local waters. It's that sulfate, when converted to sulfides in the sediment on the bottoms of lakes and rivers, that scientists say damages wild rice. High levels of sulfate and thus sulfides render some areas uninhabitable for the wild plant that's considered critical for wildlife and a key cultural food for the Anishinaabe and other Minnesotans.

"We know wild rice is important economically, socially and spiritually in Minnesota ... that's now a given," said Shannon Lotthammer, who heads the PCA division developing the wild-rice rule.

Additional hearings are scheduled Wednesday from 4-9 p.m. in the Beaux Arts Ballroom at Bemidji State University; Thursday from 3-7 p.m. in the Fond du Lac Community College Amphitheater in Cloquet; and Monday from 4-9 p.m. in the Central Lakes Community College Cafeteria in Brainerd. A statewide videoconference also is scheduled for Nov. 2.

Judge Schlatter on Tuesday extended the public comment period by 20 days, through Nov. 22, with comments sent to: or mail to Office of Administrative Hearings, P.O. Box 64620, St. Paul, MN 55164-0620 (Docket 80-90030-34519).