Wild rice "the whole reason our tribe is here" 10/11/2011

RON SEELY  rseely@madison.com  | Posted: Tuesday, October 11, 2011

ODANAH — Near the mouth of the Bad River on the Chippewa reservation here, the rice grows in thick stands and, late in summer, the healthy plants bend with the weight of the crop.

So it was for generations also on the St. Louis River in Minnesota, where the Chippewa of the Fond du Lac reservation near Cloquet enjoyed plentiful harvests of rice, significant to the tribe not only as a food source but as a cultural and spiritual legacy. In recent years, however, many of the rice beds in the lower reaches of the St. Louis River have suffered what tribal elders and other ricers say is a noticeable decline.

One culprit, according to some studies, could be sulfate pollution. Sulfate is a naturally occurring compound in rock, but when it is freed by mining operations and released into lakes and streams, it is changed by a naturally occuring bacteria in sediment to hydrogen sulfide, a pollutant that can kill plants. Studies have also shown that the sulfide changes mercury into methyl mercury, which can collect in fish tissue and is toxic to those who eat the fish.

In Minnesota, mining critics have been quick to blame the huge nearby open-pit iron mines and their mountainous piles of sulfate-producing wastes for the destruction of the downriver rice beds. Now, tribal members at Bad River and others worry their own rice beds could suffer a similar fate if a 1,500-acre iron mine is built near the headwaters of the river in the Penokee Hills.

Officials with Gogebic Taconite, which wants to build the $1.5 billion mine, say that scenario is unlikely. They say they would store waste from the mine so such sulfate pollution would be minimal.

On the Bad River reservation, tribal members are less charitable toward the proposed mine, even with the economic boost it could bring. 

There, the primary concerns are water pollution and possible changes in water levels. Wild rice is extremely sensitive to both; a crop can be ruined if water levels are too low or too high. The Tribal Council has voted to oppose the mine and recently renewed that opposition in a State Capitol press conference and a meeting with Gov. Scott Walker.

According to Chippewa beliefs, rice is sacred, partly because it was the rice that brought the tribe to the Great Lakes generations ago. The Chippewa originally lived on the Atlantic Coast but migrated from there, seeking, as their prophets told them, a land where food grew on the water — wild rice.

"This is the whole reason our tribe is here," said tribal member Jake Deragon on a recent boat trip to the mouth of the Bad River. "The wild rice ... I bring my kids out here and teach them how to rice. I put moccasins on my boys and have them walk on it just as our ancestors did."

Deragon said he's against the mine because he believes it is likely that any pollution from the open pit or the tailings will end up in the river and, eventually, on the reservation and in the rice beds.

"Crap runs downhill," Deragon said. "And we're downhill." 

Unlike Wisconsin, Minnesota limits the levels of sulfate that can be discharged by mines and other polluters to 10 milligrams per liter to protect wild rice. The standard, enacted in 1973, is based on studies of more than 200 Minnesota lakes by John Moyle, one of the nation's most noted experts on wild rice. Other studies confirmed his findings that wild rice becomes stunted in water with sulfate levels higher than the standard.

Leonard Anderson, a science teacher on the Fond du Lac Chippewa reservation near Cloquet, Minn., has served on a number of government committees that have studied sulfate pollution and wild rice. Though not a tribal member, Anderson has harvested rice from the lower reaches of the St. Louis River for years. He said the damage to rice beds is especially noticeable in areas of the river below the mines where sulfate levels are as high as 100 ppm — largely, critics such as Anderson say, because the state has not enforced the wild rice standard.

"I've been rice picking since 1954," Anderson said. "And I've seen the decline in the watershed."

Curiously, Anderson said, studies have shown that wild rice remains healthy in Pokegama Bay on the lower river, a bay fed by Wisconsin rivers that have low sulfate levels.

"That should be instructional to Wisconsin," Anderson said.

The wild rice standard in Minnesota is being reviewed by the state's Department of Natural Resources because of challenges from both the state's mining companies and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Both the companies and the Chamber, as well as some Minnesota legislators, claim there is not enough science to back up the standard.

But Wisconsin scientists who have studied the connections between sulfate and wild rice say there is enough legitimate science to justify concern. They say it is a problem that should be considered in the context of any proposed iron mine in Wisconsin.

David Krabenhoft, with the U.S. Geological Survey in Middleton, has studied the relationship between sulfate and grasses such as wild rice in the Great Lakes region and sawgrass in the Everglades. He also said the potential damage to rice beds by sulfate from the proposed Crandon mine was a potential problem when that since-abandoned project was under study.

"I would say you have to at least look at the potential for a problem," Krabenhoft said.

Bill Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite, said sulfate pollution shouldn't be a problem with the Wisconsin mine because iron tailings, or waste, would be disposed of using a method called "dry stacking," which removes water and allows the waste to be formed into hills. 

Those would then be covered with soil and vegetation so that sulfate-contaminated runoff would be eliminated.

But such assurances are met with skepticism by Bad River tribal officials. And last week, the tribe received approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set its own water standards, including standards that would prohibit upstream polluters — such as the proposed mine — from discharging anything into the headwaters of the Bad River that would lessen water quality.

"Our water quality standards are our Nation's proud proclamation of how we value our waterways and wetlands," said Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr.