Science, tradition and the Fond du Lac Band’s fight against copper-sulfide mining

Advocacy By Pete Marshall

In the fight to keep copper-sulfide mining from gaining a foothold in Minnesota and polluting one of the most stunning tracts of wilderness in the United States, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has been privileged to partner with many organizations and communities, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Their traditional hunting, fishing and ricing grounds along the St. Louis River are directly downstream of PolyMet’s proposed copper-sulfide mine. We are currently working with on lawsuits to stop PolyMet. Their fight illustrates how clean water binds community, traditions and human health.

On an unusually warm day in September, I sit in the bow of an aluminum canoe, half pushing and half paddling through a dense matt of wild rice, or manoomin. In the stern, Darin Powell, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, bends the stalks of wild rice over the canoe with a rice knocker, called bawa’iganaatig in Ojibwe. With his other hand, he beats the stalks and cornels of wild rice fall into the canoe. They sound like drops of rain as they hit the metal hull.

Darin Powell beats rice kernel into the hull of his canoe
Darin Powell beats rice kernel into the hull of his canoe.

Ahead of us, John Goodreau and his nephew Eli make their way through the stalks of wild rice. John creates a rhythm, alternating on which side he knocks the rice and cornel by cornel, fills the boat. As enjoyable as it is to be out on such a beautiful lake, where touches of yellow and orange have just began to color the surrounding trees, gathering wild rice, is a laborious task. And it is only part of the process. The grains need to be dried, beaten, husked and parched, an intensive and long process.

As we bag the day’s harvest, Tom Howes, the Natural Resources Manager for the Band, talks to me about how this harvest is part of a larger effort to take care of the rice and restore the wild rice habitat. “The Ojibwe have a philosophy of reciprocity. According to legends, the Algonquin people came from the east, migrating with the promise that they would arrive in a land of abundance, a place where food grows out of the water. Archeologists have found 3,000-year old pottery with ash residue left from wild rice. It’s been sustaining us for 3,000 years. Now it’s our turn to take care of the rice.”

Tom Howes shows off a handful of the harvest
Tom Howes shows off a handful of the harvest

* * * * *

As the only cereal grain native to North America, wild rice once grew in abundance throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. However, since the 19th century, development and pollution in this region have devastated the water quality needed to sustain wild rice.

Where we were, on Dead Fish Lake, the government dug a number of ditches in the early 1900s, attempting to drain the land and make it suitable for farming. The canals disturbed the hydrology of the nearby lakes and, consequently, spoiled what had once been a reliable wild rice harvest.

On the nearby St. Louis River estuary, where several thousand acres of wild rice once grew, the effects of two superfund sites and industrial pollution from the mining and timber industry had all but eliminated the wild rice.

But the story does not end here. Starting in the late 1970s stricter water quality standards at both the state and local levels, along with an investment in eco-friendly infrastructure, such as the wastewater treatment facility at the Cloquet papermill, helped clear the way for a comeback for wild rice.

At Deadfish Lake and other lakes on the reservation, the Band installed concrete gates to control water levels in the lake. These, along with hydraulic holding ponds helped restore the hydrology of the lakes to what they were before the canals were dug. The effectiveness of this project is evident by the wild rice piled at the bottom of our canoe.

Ricing on Deadfish Lake
Ricing on Deadfish Lake

In partnership with DNR, White Earth and Leech Lake bands and others, the Fond du Lac Band has taken active measures to restore wild rice in the upper estuary of the Saint Louis River. It’s an intensive process, that over the past five years has involved clearing out competing plants, such as pickerelweed, that has grown in the absence of wild rice and planting as much as 50 pounds of seed per acre. The hope is to create a self-sustaining seedbank in the sediment of the estuary, so that each year, the rice will grow and germinate on its own.

However, just as these efforts are bearing fruit, the clean water necessary to sustain wild rice has been under attack.

* * * * *

Several years ago, the mining industry and well-funded special interests groups launched a campaign to kneecap Minnesota’s water quality standards. One target was the “wild rice standard,” Minnesota’s water quality rule that limits the amount of sulfates in wild rice waters to 10 parts per million. This limit was set in 1973, and numerous independent studies have subsequently affirmed that sulfate levels above this amount are detrimental to wild rice. Essentially, what happens is that sulfates are reduced to sulfide complexes, which attach to the roots of the rice, and block the plant’s ability to take up nutrients when it is flowering and setting seeds. In turn, the plants yield less grain. After a few years of continued sulfate loading, the affected wild rice dies off.

In 2018, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton vetoed efforts to repeal these standards and give PolyMet and other industries permission to discharge more pollutants. Though this particular battle is over — for now — the fight to maintain strict limits on sulfates was about more than protecting stands of wild rice. It was about protecting human health.

The Minnesota Health Department has found that 1 in 10 infants in northeastern Minnesota are born with an unsafe level of mercury in their blood. One contributing factor is high sulfate discharges, and the legacy of mining in the area.

Naturally occurring, sulfates are dissolved minerals that are released when sulfide-bearing rock is exposed to water or oxygen. Many sulfates enter the water system from waste rock created by mines. Far from being a harmless byproduct, sulfates react with bacteria in the water to convert the mercury already deposited in the watershed into methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that attaches to fish, to birds and makes its way through the food chain to humans. Methylmercury acts as a neurotoxin, affecting brain development, language acquisition, gross motor skills and memory. At higher levels, the effects of mercury poisoning can be far worse.

“Mercury is our primary concern with water quality,” said Nancy Schuldt, the Water Projects Coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band. Because the reservation is downstream of the proposed PolyMet site, people here would be directly affected by the sulfates released by the mine, and the subsequent increase in the amount of methylmercury in their water. As Schuldt goes on to explain, PolyMet’s plan to unearth over 900 acres of wetlands, the largest permitted destruction of wetlands in Minnesota’s history, will make the problem of mercury contamination even worse.

Canoe containing rice and harvesting tools

“The peat in these wetlands is a sponge for mercury, and a perfect environment for creating methylmercury. When it is destroyed, it will release a huge amount of that stored mercury into the water system. The state has determined that the largest source of mercury in the Lake Superior Basin is from Minnesota’s taconite plants. With PolyMet, you have this old plant site discharging high concentrations of sulfates, and a mine site with hundreds of acres of mercury-rich peatland that will be newly torn up. The Band has raised scientifically defensible points on how PolyMet would discharge more mercury than is allowed, and it will go into water bodies that are already impaired by mercury. But in the end, the state of Minnesota relied on PolyMet’s analysis and swallowed it hook line and sinker. Science should stand on its own. Truth should not need a PR team. Unfortunately, money and political power have the loudest voice.”

* * * * *

In early September, just a few days before my visit, the Fond du Lac Band filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, on the grounds that the permits issued by these agencies would not stop PolyMet from violating the Band’s water quality standards, in particular, their mercury standards.

In clearing the way for PolyMet, the agencies went around the law, disregarded the treaty rights and ignored the science behind clean water. Working together, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and other organizations filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers on the same day.

If a copper-sulfide mine were to open, it would undoubtedly increase mercury levels as well as unravel the long work of restoring the wild rice beds in the St. Louis River. Of course, this fight is about much more than wild rice.

In northern Minnesota, wild rice is an indicator of a functioning, healthy ecosystem. Where there is wild rice, there is an abundance of biodiversity: From the algae that attaches to the stem of the rice to the snails and insect larvae that feed on the algae, up through the birds and fish that rely on those insects and snails. The long stalks create cover for predators like Northern Pike, and habitat for moose. If wild rice disappears from a water system, something is wrong.

The work of restoring beds of wild rice is about protecting an ecosystem that people are a part of and on which people rely. Wild rice is a sign of clean water, an indicator that the ecosystem is healthy, and more broadly, that our policies towards clean water and the environment are guided by science. In this sense, it’s not too much to say that one could look at wild rice as a symbol of a healthy society.

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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