1. Share understanding of what is known about the effects of sulfate and sulfide on wild rice.
2. Identify the most critical “unknowns” and associated hypothesis, needed to inform further evaluation and, if warranted, revision of the wild rice sulfate standard.
3. Recommend study design(s) and methods to test the most critical hypothesis.
The first part of this article focuses on my personal experience and views of the meeting.
I first learned about this meeting through an acquaintance who works for a tribal environmental department – one of the three tribes (Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Fond Du Lac) who submitted tribal responses to Polymet’s DEIS. Through an email that I was sent, I was able to sign up as an observer.
In the intervening three weeks before the meeting, I was sent two documents - Protocol Development Discussion Document and an Excel spreadsheet on Specific Hypothesis Regarding the Role of Sulfate.
On the day of the meeting, I was cordially welcomed by the MPCA staff. I didn’t know where to go at first, so I sat at what I called the Big Table – this was the main meeting room where the scientists and experts would meet. Seated to my right and left were two female scientists/experts, and they welcomed me to the meeting. No one knew who I was – I was there as a representative of Protect Our Manoomin – and I think most people there were intrigued that a Native person was present.
Everyone had placards that they filled in and put in front of them. Tribes were represented by Grand Portage, Bois Forte, Fond Du Lac, the 1854 Treaty Authority, and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Various agencies included the USEPA, MPCA, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, U.S, Geological Survey, Barr Engineering Co., Ducks Unlimited, U. S. Salinity Laboratory; and various scientists and experts from the University of Minnesota, University of California – Davis, U of M Duluth, Louisiana State University, Northland College, Lakehead University (Canada), University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. The total number of participants was forty-seven.
I sat there thinking – how did a Redlaker ever come to sit at a table like this? Well, of course, it wasn’t my table. I was just an observer. Just before the meeting started, I asked one of the MPCA staff to direct me to the observer room.
The room for observers was located two or three rooms down the hallway. There weren’t too many observers – only six of us. Other observers opted for teleconferencing the meeting.
Paula Maccabee was across from me. She came over and gave me a gracious handshake. I was familiar with her from her work as an attorney in the forefront of the battle against raising the sulfate standard and sulfide mining.
Three other individuals seated the end of table across from me were: Mike Robinson, MN Chamber of Commerce, Dave Skolasinski, Cliffs Natural Resources, and Mike Hansel, Barr Engineering. The MN Chamber of Commerce is the most powerful lobby at the State Capitol; they filed a lawsuit against the MPCA regarding the sulfate standard, a lawsuit that was intended to raise or suspend the standard. Cliffs Natural Resources is a Fortune 500 company that specializes in iron ore and metallurgical coal, used to make coke for foundries. Barr Engineering, among other services, integrates engineering and environmental expertise for mining and minerals processing.
It was an interesting sight seeing those three so-called powerful men hunched together. I thought - so these are the environmental racists we face. Of course, the three shared a common affinity in wanting a raised or suspended sulfate standard that would allow their companies to reap the mining plunder of northeastern Minnesota. Like Paula, I turned my back and ignored them.
The proceedings of the meeting at the Big Table were aired via video cam on a large screen. After introductions, MPCA discussed their history of the current wild rice standard. The name of John Moyle came up a number of times. Although long deceased, it was clear that MPCA still held Moyle and his work in high regard. It was Moyle’s work, done in the 1940s, that MPCA used to set the wild rice standard in 1973. Despite challenges to Moyle’s work, his wild rice standard has held up for nearly 40 years.
The meeting then turned to a discussion of the protocol development for the study of the sulfate standard. Basically, the MPCA discussed some of the hypothetical approaches. The opinions and comments of the scientists and experts would be considered for a potential study of wild rice. Part of the study was for the MPCA’s 2012 Water Quality Standards Triennial Review. (There are other factors involved, including technical factors, and these will be covered in Part 2.)
We then broke for lunch. Margaret Watkins, Grand Portage Environmental Department, came over and talked to me. She said she was glad that I came and was familiar with Protect Our Manoomin. She encouraged me to continue with the work we were doing in creating awareness of the sulfate standard. She also said the tribal position was that the 10 mg/L standard had to be maintained.
After lunch, there were two breakout sessions. Observers were allowed to attend the sessions and we had seats along the wall. Both sessions were the same and revolved around these questions:
- Perhaps on an empirical model would be adequate;
- We don’t need to understand all the mechanisms;
- But different background conditions may produce different results;
- So we need to identify the potential controlling variables for designing data collection and interpreting data:
- Iron, manganese, copper, zinc
- Organic Matter
- Nitrogen…and so on
- What is the most efficient way to test as many high-priority hypothesis as possible?
- We probably have two field seasons (after a preliminary field survey in 2011);
- What should we do over those two field seasons?
The table then opened for discussion and the scientists and technical experts offered their views. Basically, the discussion was how to conduct the study in situ (i.e. in the field) and in the lab. The complications, variables, and measurements that were involved. And how to maintain the correlation between the lab and the environment.
I noticed the MN Chamber rep was lost. He didn’t appear to know or understand the discussion. He didn’t take notes and he sat there with a bewildered look on his face. I think the discussion was much more complex than he thought it would be and that changing the standard wasn’t going to be a simple task.
It seemed to me that some of the experts were talking about the study as being a new study – a study that would start from the beginning. At that point, Shannon Lotthammer of MPCA spoke and said that the MPCA had a standard, based on Moyle’s work, and that the MPCA wanted to use current scientific methods to maintain that standard or revise it.
With that, the breakout session ended. At that point I had to leave, but the remainder of the meeting was a recap of the two breakout sessions and the next steps MPCA would take.
As a humble observer, what is my take of this important meeting? The scientists clearly enjoyed their discussion of their various hypotheses for the study. It was interesting to watch their interaction. Some ideas were good, others not so good.
But what I found more interesting was the MPCA’s stand. And they stand behind the work of John Moyle and the standard that evolved from Moyle. Lotthammer strongly emphasized that MPCA has a standard. And it’s going to take in-depth scientific methods to maintain the standard or revise it. And it seemed to me that MPCA was confident that the standard would be maintained. Given the information on the effects of sulfate/sulfide that was made available at the meeting, indeed, should the standard be revised, the standard may be lowered rather than raised.
Note - At the time of this writing, I received word that the conference committee chose to suspend the current standard. H.L. 1010 will now go to Dayton who will sign it or veto it. It's our consensus that Dayton will sign the bill. Nevertheless, suspending the standard does not mean the battle is over - indeed, it is only beginning. It should be further noted that the suspension of the sulfate standard will be in effect until the MPCA completes its study.