There's a new player in the age-old fight between mining companies and environmentalists: wild rice.
The April 19, 2014 banner headline blared “Major threat to Iron Range” across the front page of the Mesabi Daily News, the largest newspaper in northern Minnesota’s iron mining region. The threat was neither a storm, nor a band of roving criminals, nor even a radioactive monster from the deep, cold pits of abandoned mines; it was an state environmental report about wild rice that most people would have trouble understanding.
It’s a political argument for sure; one again pitting old foes from the mining industry and environmental movement against each other. This region tucked in the woods 80 miles north of Duluth, 100 miles south of the Canadian border, has mined iron ore since the late 1800s, starting with some of the richest natural ore ever found and, since the 1960s, extracting massive amounts of ore from lower grade taconite rock. For the past 10 years, a new fight has been brewing over mining copper, nickel and other minerals from deposits near the Range, but also nearer the water supplies of Lake Superior and the federally protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The microscopic contents of the water discharged from mining sites in northern Minnesota rages on, fast becoming the region’s and perhaps even the state’s biggest political argument.
As explained in an April 7, 2014 Minneapolis Star Tribune story by Josephine Marcotty, the Wild Rice Standard, a state law, was created in 1973 based on research showing that wild rice can’t grow where sulfate levels are higher than 10 parts per million.
Minnesota is the only place where wild rice grows in abundance, now almost exclusively in the northeastern portion of the state. And it’s the only state with a rule on the books that protects it specifically from a pollutant that comes from taconite mining — also in the northeast.
Historically, the standard was seldom enforced — in part because sulfate was viewed as fairly benign and because no one was ever sure exactly what constituted a wild rice water protected by the rule, state officials say.
After concerns were raised by Indian tribes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, the MPCA decided to review the standard and signaled that it would consider enforcing it in future mining permits. But mining and industry groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, protested the state’s action, saying that enforcing it would cost cities, businesses and consumers millions of dollars. The chamber filed suit, ultimately losing its case at the appeals court level.
This caused concern in the mining community, suddenly worried that the wild rice standard would now pose a major roadblock to future mining operations. Mining opponents, conversely, saw the standard as a potential weapon to stop controversial new mines.
But in the midst of this, century-old iron mining operations now feel threatened, too — worried that a strictly-enforced wild rice standard could derail the region’s biggest industry. (Sulfate and sulfide levels fluctuate greatly based on the amount of water present in the eco-system and are, to some degree, hard to predict.)
Case in point, the EPA just settled with the Fond du Lac band in a lawsuit that removes the variance allowing higher sulfate emissions at Mesabi Nugget near Hoyt Lakes. Mesabi Nugget will now have to maintain a more stringent standard on its emissions, which will cost it more just as iron ore prices are poised to level off or even come down a little. Expansions at Keewatin Taconite have been held up by the wild rice standard. Mines have long met the standard, but at a cost — while scientists and wild rice harvesters argue about whether the standard is too high or too low.
The reality is that there exists technology to both mine new minerals and meet the current environmental laws. We just have no meaningful assurance that new copper/nickel mines like PolyMet and Twin Metals or, more importantly, their successive owners, will use that technology for the hundreds of years necessary to treat the tailings.
The comment period on PolyMet's Environmental Impact Statement ended Thursday, March 13. More than 40,000 people submitted comments, and the battle lines for a coming regulatory and legal fight were drawn. The fate of those permits now rests with the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Pollution Control Agency and other regulating boards, but legal challenges from Ojibwe nations and environmental groups over the wild rice standard are all but certain.
Iron Range leaders, mostly of a unique blend of labor-friendly, pro-development Democrats, are so nervous about the wild rice standard disrupting their only actionable idea for economic development that they actually delayed the release of the report by strong arming the Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration. When the report was released, the Mesabi Daily News hit the panic button.
The reason for all these emotions over tiny molecules isn’t because of numbers, or even, for most people, science: it’s a cultural battle. Will the Iron Range continue to be a mining region, or will it reckon with the fact it will need to become something else, some day.
We live in a world that needs metal and wild rice, for reasons both practical and spiritual. Where in this world do the people of the Iron Range fit in?
Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe iron. Maybe copper. But the "big ask" is coming. A huge push to relax the wild rice standard and increase the tiny amounts of sulfates in the water will come. We're going to have to arrive at a number. And it would be reasonable to assume that most of the debate will be based on deeply held cultural, economic and emotional arguments, not science.
Meantime, I remind everyone again of what I always say: New mining will happen, or not, based on financing and commodity prices, but the Iron Range will suffer either way if we fail to diversify our economy. We will lose population and economic strength over time either way, unless we successfully generate non-mining jobs to accompany and, one day, supplant our mining economy.
Successful mining companies play the long game; so too should the people of the Iron Range.
Aaron J. Brown is an author from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show, a music and storytelling variety program on Northern Community Radio and other public stations. He lives in the woods north of the western Mesabi Range with his family.