Copper mining versus wild rice in Minnesota

The Associated Press reports that although wild rice is sacred to the Ojibwe of Minnesota, that might not be enough to protect it from the promise of jobs that a new copper-nickel mining industry would bring to the state.

The article reports that state lawmakers and business interests are working to loosen Minnesota’s water quality standards to make it easier to start copper mining in the northeastern part of the state that could come at an environmental price. The fight is being closely watched by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who fear that weaker standards could wipe out important natural stands of wild rice that provide food and medicine.

“It is sacred. It is a gift from the Creator. It is central to Ojibwe cultural identity. The cultural significance can’t be overstated,” said Nancy Schuldt, the band’s water projects coordinator.

A key issue is whether the state’s current limits on discharges of sulfates into water are outmoded. Minnesota’s copper-nickel deposits are chemically tied up in minerals that also contain sulfur. When exposed to air and rain, these sulfide minerals form water-soluble sulfates.

Wild rice is a critical component of the region’s ecosystem because waterfowl depend on it for food, said Paula Maccabee, a lawyer for WaterLegacy, which has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that seeks to block enforcement of the state’s sulfate standard. A ruling is pending.

The issue is coming to a head as Canada-based Polymet Mining Corp. seeks permits to tap one of the world’s largest copper-nickel-precious metals deposits, near Hoyt Lakes on the eastern end of the Mesabi Iron Range. It says the project would create 360 permanent jobs and require about 1.25 million hours of construction labor. Other companies hope to follow.

Environmental groups are concerned about water and air quality as well as wild rice. They say Polymet will set the pattern for other copper mining proposals and for future prospecting. Betsy Daub, policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said Minnesota has never seen large-scale mining of sulfide minerals, but the track record elsewhere has been disastrous, with long-term water pollution and costly government cleanups after mines go bankrupt.

Ojibwe legend says tribe members migrated westward and received a prophecy that they would know they had reached their home “when we saw the food that grows on the water,” said Tom Howes, the band’s natural resources manager.

Today, 300 to 400 Fond du Lac members are active ricers in any given year, Howe said, and they share their harvest with families and friends. While some have turned to mechanical methods to parch and hull the rice, he said it’s still harvested by hand, with band members using sticks to knock the grains into their canoes.

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