Gov. Mark Dayton's administration and fellow Democrats like Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing spun the agreement on water pollution as a compromise.
But last week's deal, which allows iron mines to continue operating without complying with current sulfate discharge limits, really amounts to capitulation to an industry that's hardly in the business of environmental stewardship.
Sulfates are mineral salts and a naturally occurring byproduct caused by decaying plants and animals. Industrial processes also produce them.
While adults' bodies acclimate to high sulfate levels in drinking water quickly, babies and children are much more sensitive and can experience dehydration and diarrhea. (The standard for drinking water is 250 mg/liter.)
And there's no bigger industrial emitter of sulfates into Minnesota waterways than mines.
Last week's accord doesn't focus on human health, but wild rice, which doesn't grow well in waters with hyper-elevated sulfate levels.
Federal regulators, backed by a 1973 law that limits sulfate discharges into waters that grow wild rice, have been pressuring state officials to enforce the regulation. If it was enforced, mines and wastewater treatment plants would have to reduce their sulfate discharges before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approves new permits.
But pushback from Iron Range lawmakers like Melin and mining companies like U.S. Steel has thwarted enforcement. It's estimated that 18 mines in the state are currently operating on expired permits.
The legislative deal is essentially an early Christmas present for mining interests.
It allows operators to continue to pump out corrupted water with sulfate levels approximately 20 times the limit for wild rice as the MPCA develops a new standard.
This despite the fact that the MPCA and EPA had already agreed in 2013 to enforce the 1973 law.
The decision means it will be business as usual for polluters for at least two more years as the MPCA crafts a new sulfate standard.
"What's happening, in a sense, is pollution has continued unabated for decades and it's going to continue," says Paula Maccabbee, an attorney for the group Water Legacy, which focuses on Minnesota's water resources. "... Even though the EPA and the state administration realized the problem in 2013, now they're just simply choosing not to do anything about it."
Take Sandy Lake, situated five miles north of Virginia. It was once known for its abundant wild rice beds. Nowadays, the wild rice has all but disappeared.
Nearby, U.S. Steel's Minntac plant discharges sulfate-laden water. MPCA tests between 2012 and 2013 found sulfate levels in the Sandy Lake at 12 times the legal limit.
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