Northern Minnesota lawmakers have introduced a second round of legislation to roll back or thwart water quality protections for wild rice in an effort to protect the taconite iron ore mining industry.
The one-page bill, SF 868, was introduced this week in the Senate while its House version, HF 853, was introduced last week.
The bill would prohibit the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency from listing wild rice waters and applying the state's 40-year-old sulfate standard for wild rice until that standard is upheld by a current scientific review and re-adopted by the agency.
The bill specifically prevents the PCA from including the 10 parts-per-million sulfate standard to protect wild rice in any industrial permit issued until the ongoing sulfate study and reassessment is complete.
The PCA is nearing the end of a multiyear effort to determine whether the sulfate standard is needed to protect wild rice and, if so, what lakes and rivers the standard should apply to.
Northern Minnesota lawmakers have complained in recent weeks that the PCA has been including the sulfate standard in draft permits for mining companies even though the evaluation of the standard, ordered by lawmakers in 2011, is not yet complete.
Some mining industry leaders recently told Iron Range lawmakers that their ability to compete with a glut of cheap, foreign iron ore and finished steel could be compromised if Minnesota enforces the sulfate standard.
But Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said the bill is an end run around scientific review of wild rice protections. Similar legislation proposed in 2011 was panned by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a legislative overreach and a likely violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Lawmakers can't simply undo water quality regulations already adopted under the act, it was noted.
"This legislation would roll back current water quality standards,'' Morse said in a statement. "We think our wild rice and our water deserve better - rules based on fact, not suspended through power politics. Our wild rice legacy depends on it."
It's the second time in as many weeks that pro-mining lawmakers have introduced legislation to thwart water quality regulations. Bills introduced earlier would require legislative approval and an economic impact study of any new water-quality regulations imposed in the state if the regulations have a major cost to industry.
The legislation also calls for a cost-benefit analysis for most new water-quality rules. The bill specifically lists state standards for suspended solids, nutrients, chlorides and nitrates as well as sulfate.
A companion bill would require independent peer review of any regulation developed by a state agency dealing with water quality.