A wild ricer propels a canoe through a wild rice bed with a long, forked pole.
A wild ricer propels a canoe through a wild rice bed with a long, forked pole. Credit: Dan Kraker | MPR News

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This story comes to you from MPR News, through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

Two northern Minnesota Native American tribes have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a bid to reverse recent changes the state made to its water quality standards. The tribes argue the changes are likely to damage wild rice and pollute waters on their reservations and treaty-protected lands. 

The Fond du Lac and Grand Portage Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa filed the suit Thursday in federal district court. It seeks to overturn the EPA’s approval last October of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s recent overhaul of its Class 3 and Class 4 water quality standards. Those changes are intended to protect the state’s waterways for use by industry, agriculture, livestock and wildlife. 

“Wild rice is sacred to Anishinaabe people,” Grand Portage Chairman Robert Deschampe said in a statement announcing the legal action.

It is unbelievable to us that both the state and federal governments would make these changes without even looking at the potential damage to wild rice waters. We will do all we can to right this wrong.”

Robert Deschampe, Grand portage chairman

“It is unbelievable to us that both the state and federal governments would make these changes without even looking at the potential damage to wild rice waters,” said Deschampe. “We will do all we can to right this wrong.”

The Bands say this is believed to be the first lawsuit any tribe in the country has filed against the EPA challenging approval of changes to state water quality standards.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the state sets standards that a specific lake, river or other water body needs to meet in order to be used for certain purposes, including drinking, fishing and swimming, supporting aquatic life, 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 water body can handle, while still supporting its designated uses. 

The regulators then issue permits to sewage treatment plants, mines and other facilities that discharge a large amount of wastewater into that particular water body. 

At issue in the lawsuit are changes the MPCA made last year that replaced specific numeric limits on certain pollutants with more general narrative statements that describe what water quality problems the state is trying to prevent. 

Regulators then use what’s called a translator to determine if the permitted facility needs limits on the level of pollutants in their discharge.

The changes from the Pollution Control Agency were in the works for several years before an administrative law judge signed off on them last year. The MPCA argued the old Class three and four standards were based on outdated science.

“The agency has consistently said Minnesota can protect its waters while lowering regulatory hurdles by using the latest science as a guide,” said MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton in response to the suit. “An administrative law judge agreed.” 

The Bands argue the change is likely to result in increased pollution in waters they rely on to exercise their treaty-reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather throughout their ceded territories that cover a large swath of northeastern Minnesota.

In particular, they argue that salty pollutants such as sulfate, which is discharged from iron ore mines in the region, can adversely affect downstream fish and wild rice relied on by Band members. 

“Our water quality and legal staff worked for years to show the problems with these proposed changes, especially for wild rice waters,” said Fond du Lac Chairman Kevin Dupuis. 

“Yet MPCA pushed them through and EPA approved them. Where regulators refuse to do their jobs, we fight them in court,” he said. 

CONTRIBUTING REPORTER Dan Kraker is based in Duluth, Minn., and covers northeastern Minnesota for MPR News.