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In 1973, Minnesota adopted a rule limiting sulfate levels in waterways where wild rice was growing: Ten milligrams of sulfate per liter of water. It applied to cities, mining companies and other industries. But in the decades since this sulfate standard was established, it has rarely — if ever — been enforced.

But lately, the rule has come under fire. Native American tribes, environmentalists and some lawmakers are seeking legitimate enforcement of the existing rule, while mining companies and other lawmakers argue the standard should be abandoned completely, saying it’s unnecessary and prohibitively expensive.

• Timeline: Wild rice regulations in Minnesota Jeff Hanson, an environmental engineer who grew up in Babbitt, Minn., displays a water treatment system at his sister’s home in St.


Paul. Hanson says the system can remove sulfate from mine pit lakes on the Iron Range, which could reduce the negative impacts on wild rice downstream. Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

The work of developing this new solution has been under wraps for years as Hanson and his colleagues refined their technique and pursued patents. In a report on the process published last July, UMD researchers showed the floating modules have promise.

Yet Hanson and the others who contributed to the project, which received funding from both the state and the mining industry, still don’t know whether the technology will ever be adopted. Minnesota’s sulfate standard is in limbo, as GOP and some DFL lawmakers are pushing this legislative session to discard it entirely, and Gov. Mark Dayton wants to address its shortcomings in other ways.

Without any standard, it would be hard to get anyone to pay for water treatment systems like Hanson’s. And Hanson said a lack of a standard would be disastrous to wild rice. Instead, he hopes the state will pursue affordable solutions — like the one he’s developed.

And, he said, if the mines were all to shut down tomorrow, the state of Minnesota would likely have to foot the bill for cleaning up sulfate discharge occurring upstream from the lakes and rivers where Native American tribes have been harvesting wild rice for centuries.

One of the main challenges in cleaning up mining waters, Schuldt said, is being able to process huge volumes of water at a time: She said U.S. Steel’s Minntac mine in Mountain Iron, Minn., for example, discharges as much water in a day as a large city.

If the treatment cost were to go down, I still don’t think you’d see anybody beating down the doors to say, ‘Please, give me a sulfate limit so that I have to install control technology,’ Schuldt said. Rafts equipped with underwater bioreactors are seen on a mine pit lake in northern Minnesota in the summer of 2016. The solar panels power pumps that bring in water high in sulfate, clean it up and remove any toxic sulfide, which can harm wild rice and other living things downstream. Courtesy Clearwater Layline

But Tony Kwilas, who represents the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce on environmental issues at the Capitol, said cities and businesses are open to affordable alternatives to the status quo — as long as it works on a large industrial or municipal scale.

Few of those embedded in the debate at the Capitol — including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — know many details about Hanson’s floating bog project. But MPCA spokesperson Dave Verhasselt said there’s always hope that technology can solve environmental problems.

There’s simple examples, like toilets that manage to flush with one or one and a half gallons versus toilets that used to flush with two, three, four gallons, Verhasselt said. In this case, it would just be, can it work, does it do what it says it does, would companies and municipalities that discharge wastewater want to buy it and use it?

Hanson suspects lots of Minnesotans share that view — but most have been lumped into pro- and anti-mining narratives, he said. That’s never been more clear than at a public hearing he attended several years ago over the PolyMet mining company’s proposal to open a copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range. Hanson said he walked into the hearing and was immediately asked which side he was on, with interest groups offering up brightly colored T-shirts and buttons.