Wild rice regs worry council

by Tom Coombe
Officials in Ely have doubled down and reiterated their opposition to proposed new standards related to wild rice standards.
Joining the Ely Utilities Commission, the city council voted Tuesday to ask that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s rule making process be suspended through May and charged that rules being proposed would have “devastating impacts on our cities, industry and communities in northeastern Minnesota.”
“They’re doing it backwards,” Ely council member Paul Kess said of the MPCA.
At issue is a new edict regarding the enforcement of standards pertaining to wild rice waters, and a concern that regulations related to sulfate levels could require cities across northeastern Minnesota - including Ely - to absorb millions of dollars in capital expenditures and operating costs.
When first proposed, Ely leaders charged the regulations could force the city to increase sewer rates by $150 to $200 per month to offset the increase in costs.
While no figures were bandied about during the council debate, several city leaders warned of potentially dire economic consequences.
“Let’s look at the cost of implementation and then go from there,” said Harold Langowski, the city’s clerk-treasurer and operations director.
Council members voted 6-0, with Heidi Omerza absent, to oppose the regulations.
During brief debate, council member Jerome Debeltz asked “we have that much wild rice here?”
“We are upstream of wild rice waters,” Langowski responded. “Fall Lake (is a wild rice water). If you are within 25 miles, you will be under the regulations.”
Kess represents the city on the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, a group that has taken the lead in opposing the standards and charging they would be destructive to the Iron Range.
“The MPCA is getting ahead of itself,” said Kess.
While Ely officials, under terms of the resolution agree that “the standard to protect wild rice is obsolete” they urge the MPCA to apply the brakes.
They point to the economic considerations as well as the MPCA’s own acknowledgment that “there are multiple factors other than sulfide that impact wild rice.”
They also argue that the MPCA is proceeding with rulemaking despite an upcoming, legislatively-funded report, due out in May, that will analyze wastewater treatment alternatives to inform the development and implementation of the wild rice sulfate standard.
According to Kess, implementation “has the potential to cause major disruption for local communities.”
“It is a serious concern,” added mayor Chuck Novak.
In other business, the council:
• Revised its emergency contact information, naming police sergeant George Burger as a lead, to work closely with fire chief Tom Erchull and police chief John Lahtonen.
• Approved a resolution authorizing the city to apply for funds from the Minnesota Secretary of State Voting Equipment Grant Program.
Debeltz was reassured by Langowski, who oversees Ely elections, that the city’s current equipment is immune from hacking by foreign agents including the Russian government.
• Approved commercial rehabilitation loans for the owners of the Ely Steam Bath and Roots Salon.
• Finalized payments for and noted substantial completion of the airport taxiway project, which was done almost entirely (95 percent) with federal funds.
• Formed a negotiating committee to meet with city supervisor bargaining units.
• Gave the council and staff permission to attend the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities Fall Conference, Nov. 16-17 at Alexandria.