Senate passes bill to strike down wild rice standard

The Minnesota Senate passed a bill Monday to throw out a long-standing state rule that limits sulfate discharge into waters where wild rice grows and restrict the ability of state pollution regulators to set another standard.

The action came even after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency decided last week it would explore a new proposed standard in the face of stiff opposition. The House passed a similar bill last week.

Both versions would nullify a 1978 sulfate limit, which has rarely been enforced, and prevent a newer version from taking effect.

Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, said he’s willing to work with the agency on a compromise but finds its current route untenable. Bill supporters argue that tougher discharge standards could prove costly for local communities, which could be forced to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities with expensive technology. They also say it would stifle industry, particularly mining companies.

“This bill will put a stop to what’s going on now, take a pause and go back to the drawing board,” Eichorn said, “and make sure if we are going to do something that everybody is on board and everybody gets a seat at the table, including industry, including municipalities, including environmental groups and government.”

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, was among a handful in his party to join most Republicans in backing the bill in the 38-28 vote. Two Republicans — Sens. Paul Anderson of Plymouth and Jim Abeler of Anoka — broke ranks to vote with bill opponents.

“What we’re going to try to do here is bring some common sense back into the game,” Tomassoni said. “Let’s not say we’re going to implement a standard and have people pay hundreds of millions of dollars to implement treatment systems and then find out maybe it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever.” Other DFL senators in favor were Tom Bakk of Cook, Kent Eken of Twin Valley, Dan Sparks of Austin, Matt Klein of Mendota Heights and Erik Simonson of Duluth.

Environmental groups and Native American tribes said the state’s new proposed rule wouldn’t have been protective enough. Last week, the agency said it would start the rulemaking process over, saying the science is accurate but that more work is needed on how to apply it.

Opponents of the bill said that the approach would tie the hands of regulators.

Sen. John Marty, DFL -Roseville, was on the losing side of today’s vote. He said lawmakers are ignoring research on the risks of excessive discharge.

“Declaring the science something you don’t like does not mean it is bad science,” Marty said. “We’re basically saying as a Legislature that we don’t like the results you came up with so we’re going to declare it bad science.”