Sulfate bills would suspend existing water-quality standards

Post date: Feb 15, 2015 1:16:17 AM

These bill seems to be taking an opportunity to attack Minnesota's protection of wild rice lakes. A political opportunity that seems to be based on scientific uncertainty.

Metsa, Jason, and David J. Tomassoni. 2015. MN 2015 HF 853 / SF 868: Wild Rice Water Quality Standard Application Prohibited until Conditions Are Met.

House co-authors: Metsa ; Melin ; Anzelc ; Dill ; Lueck

Senate co-authors: Tomassoni ; Saxhaug ; Bakk ; Ingebrigtsen

Melin, Carly, and David J. Tomassoni. 2015. MN 2015 HF 1000 / SF 1007: No Water-Quality Standard May Be Applied to Wild Rice Waters until Criteria Are Set for Designating Wild Rice Waters.

House co-authors: Melin ; Lueck ; Metsa ; Anzelc ; Dill

Senate co-authors: Tomassoni ; Saxhaug ; Bakk ; Ingebrigtsen

The research that's been done in the last four years has not led the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to revise the current water-quality standard of 10 mg sulfate / liter of water in wild rice lakes.

But "if those timid scientists aren't going to be decisive," these narrow-minded politicians will be. Rather than waiting any longer, erring on the side of caution, completing the recommended scientific research--their idea is to do away with the current water-quality standards. No protection for wild rice lakes from sulfate pollution.

That's not the right kind of "decisive."

Update 2/25/2015:

HF 1000 was heard by the MN House Environment & Natural Resources Policy Committee on 2/24/2015 and 2/25/2015, with lengthy testimony from industry about how expensive it might become to comply with Federal/State water-quality standards for sulfate.

Each challenge from industry, however, was ably answered, on behalf of the people, with better science, the force of federal water-quality regulations, and the fact that clean water is a necessity.

One of the highlights of the 2/24/2015 meeting was the testimony of Winona LaDuke on behalf of the people--including those of the White Earth Nation.

If you listen past her testimony you might try to figure out what, exactly, Rep. McNamara was trying to say to Winona LaDuke about the need to "move forward," apparently with less regard for the importance of clean water, and for the fragile complexity of the natural systems from which we draw it.

If you were hoping to see a vote on this bill, you're not going to be in luck. The intention seems to be to slip it into an omnibus Environment & Natural Resources bill, to shield it from further scrutiny and opposition. As was pointed out repeatedly, however, the most this bill could accomplish would be to force the US EPA to re-assume its regulatory authority.

This is all like an elaborate protest of the federal Clean Water Act; it wouldn't accomplish anything except to highlight its political point, and perhaps delay the progress of scientific research.

Update: 3/27/2015

SF 1007 was heard by the MN Senate Environment & Energy Committee on 3/27/2015 following a presentation by the MN Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

The goal of SF 1007 is to prevent the MPCA from enforcing sulfate water-quality standards until more research has been done and new standards have been set.

The news from the MPCA was that the agency will be proposing new site-specific sulfate standards (rules for the issuance of wastewater-discharge permits). The standards will apply to listed "wild-rice waters." The list will include waters that are suitable for wild rice and those on which wild rice is growing. The sulfate standard for each listed wild-rice water will depend on that water's soluble iron and organic sediment.

MPCA officials Rebecca Flood, Shannon Lotthammer, and Katrina Kessler presented the MPCA's two-year plan for setting the new rules. The process will begin in the Fall of 2015 with public meetings, hearings, and other opportunities for public input. Research will continue, and the list of wild-rice waters will be developed. Scientific and legal procedures will be followed in detail.

Following the MPCA presentation, MN Sen. David Tomassoni presented SF 1007. He pointed out that the current standard would be very expensive to meet in certain cases. He suggested that the expense would be hard to justify without more certainty about what level of wastewater cleanup would be necessary in order to protect the environment, including wild rice.

Committee Chairman MN Sen. John Marty balanced Sen. Tomassoni's arguments by pointing out the much higher potential costs of post-release environmental cleanup, and the promising option that the MN Legislature support the development of new water-treatment technologies; an area of "green" technology with a significant economic future in the State.

There was an hour and a half of public testimony, pro and con. The audio recording is available through MN Senate Audio Services at (right-click to download the MP3 file).

SF 1007 was laid over for consideration at a later date. Sen. Marty will also be introducing legislation on the topic.

Video excerpt, 4/16/2015, MN Rep. John Persell (D-Bemidji) stands up for Minnesota water-quality standards.

Update: 4/16/2015

Minnesota Representative John Persell (D-Bemidji) introduced his A-15 amendment on 4/16/2015 in opposition to this negative political interference on pollution-control policy. The offending language is now included in the MN House omnibus Environment & Natural Resources Finance Bill HF 846.

The amendment was heard by the MN House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance on 4/16/2015.

The amendment did not pass. In a party-line vote, with the GOP majority plus Rep. Dill voted against the enforcement of the current water-quality standard.

See the vote tabulated at Conservation Minnesota (along with the votes on two other environmental amendments).

For more about the environmental issues and controversies, see the Star Tribune article "House GOP Legislators, Dayton Spar over Environmental Bill." 4/16/2015.

Update: 4/21/2015

MN Sen. Tomassoni is going it on his own against Minnesota's sulfate standard for wild rice waters.

As described in the "update: 3/27/2015" below, his bill SF 1007 was heard at length, but not passed; only "laid over" for future consideration by the MN Senate Committee on Environment & Energy. That was an appropriate response to a bill with no scientific merit (it only attempted to challenge the scientific merit of the existing water-quality standard).

But Sen. Tomassoni has other ways to proceed; he doesn't need the approval of the Committee on Environment & Energy. He's going to do it in his own, and he's going to make it look like he's doing something appropriate in bringing the issue directly to the Finance Committee. Granted, there is a financial issue in the high cost of controlling pollution. But there are exponentially greater environmental and financial issues in the costs--impossible to repay--of environmental contamination.

If you search the 220-page bill HF 2101 for "wild rice water quality standards" and wade through the legalities, you can see that the Senator has made a variation on his earlier blanket prohibition against enforcement of the sulfate standard. The new prohibition does some obscure dancing around the issue of what the MPCA would and would not be allowed to do about existing or new sources of pollution (not much). The Senator's new variation would enable permittees to request "additional conditions" (whatever that might mean, and it probably doesn't mean "additional safeguards"). It would actually attempt to prohibit the MPCA from enforcing the federal Clean Water Act (which, of course, is not a legal nor practical option).

It might be worth tuning into the 4/21/2015 Finance Committee hearing to hear the euphemisms that the industrial public-relations team might have come up with to make this all sound like a "response to stakeholder input," a "technical refinement," a "compromise, with the good of the State at heart," etc. Whatever it might be, it won't be true.

The truth is that this is a siege of the scientific process of the MPCA and the federal Clean Water Act by a Chairman of a Committee on Finance.

Update: 3/8/2018:

The MN PCA has come up with an alternative water-quality standard for sulfate, to protect wild-rice waters based upon the traits of each body of water. However, an administrative-law judge has ruled that the MN PCA hasn't proven that the new standard would provide protection equal to or greater than the former standard: 10 mg/l for every body of water.

The sulfide-mining industry and its supporters have taken the opportunity to call for a repeal of all of the sulfate water-quality standards, both the former and the proposed standard.Obviously, they don't understand the issue, or the science, or the law; but they do seem to know how to capitalize on the confusion that many legislators are experiencing, attempting to understand the situation.

See the details in the MN PCA information page, the bill MN 2018 HF 3280 / SF 2983, and the 3/8/2018 Session Daily article "Lawmakers seek wild rice water standard that satisfies industry, environmentalists."