Two Native American tribes in northern Minnesota have sued the US Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to reverse recent changes the state made to its water quality standards. The tribes say the changes are likely to damage wild rice and pollute the waters of their reservations and treaty-protected lands.
The Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands of Lake Superior Chippewa filed suit Thursday in federal district court. It seeks to reverse the EPA’s approval last October of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s recent review of its Class 3 and 4 water quality standards. state waterways for use by industry, agriculture, livestock and wildlife.
“Wild rice is sacred to the Anishinaabe people,” Grand Portage president Robert Deschampe said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
“It is incredible to us that the state and federal governments are making these changes without even considering the potential damage to wild rice waters. We will do everything we can to right this wrong.
The bands say this is the first lawsuit filed by a tribe in the nation against EPA approval to challenge changes to state water quality standards.
Under federal water quality law, the state sets standards that a specific lake, river, or other body of water must meet to be used for certain purposes, including drinking, fishing and swimming, aquatic life support, and agricultural and industrial use.
State regulators use the standards to determine how much of a particular pollutant, such as nutrients, chemicals, and minerals, a body of water can handle while supporting its designated uses.
Regulators then issue permits to sewage treatment plants, mines, and other facilities that discharge a large amount of sewage into that particular body of water.
The dispute centers on changes made by the MPCA last year that replaced specific numeric limits for certain pollutants with more general narrative statements describing the water quality problems the state is trying to prevent.
Regulators then use what is called a translator to determine if the licensed facility needs limits on the level of pollutants in their discharge.
The Pollution Control Agency changes had been in the works for several years before an administrative law judge approved them last year. The MPCA argued that the old Class Three and Four standards were based on outdated science.
“The agency has always said Minnesota can protect its waters while lowering regulatory hurdles by using the latest science as a guide,” MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton said in response to the suit. “An administrative law judge agreed.”
The bands argue that the change will likely lead to increased pollution of the waters they rely on to exercise their reserved hunting, fishing and gathering rights throughout their ceded territories which cover a large swath of northeastern Minnesota.
In particular, they argue that salt pollutants such as sulphate, which is released from iron ore mines in the area, can harm fish and wild rice downstream that band members depend on.
“Our Water Quality and Legal team has worked for years to show the issues with these proposed changes, especially for wild rice waters,” said Fond du Lac President Kevin Dupuis.
“Yet the MPCA pushed them through and the EPA approved them. Where regulators refuse to do their job, we fight them in court,” he said.