Big Ag latest industry to attack tribal water rights

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The taking of Minnesota lands and waters from tribal nations by white settlers is often referred to as history in our state – regrettable, painful history, but a story of the past nonetheless. But the word “history” implies that the theft of land and resources happened long ago. This story, unfortunately, is still being written today.

No small potatoes for groundwater

The latest chapter concerns a potato company, R.D. Offutt Farms, the largest potato producer in the United States and a major supplier to companies like McDonald’s. R.D. Offutt grows its crop across many acres across the country, and many of these acres lie in northwestern Minnesota’s Pineland Sands region.

This region’s soils and geology are especially vulnerable to water pollution from sources like pesticides, and R. D. Offutt’s farms use plenty of pesticides. That pollution spurred the creation of the grassroots Toxic Taters campaign, which successfully employed pressure via McDonalds to get R. D. Offutt to cut its use of an especially harmful carcinogenic fungicide.

R. D. Offutt’s farm holdings in the Pineland Sands also use up enormous volumes of water for irrigation – and happen to lie near and within the boundaries of the White Earth Band of Chippewa. White Earth is among the largest Indigenous reservations in the state, and has the power under federal law to set regulations on certain activities that could threaten its natural resources.

Last year, the White Earth Band determined that the massive increase in irrigation on and around its lands constituted one such activity. They decided to require that farms using the groundwater the tribe depends on must apply for a permit and accept limits and monitoring enforced by the tribe. These requirements are more stringent than the regulations imposed by the Minnesota DNR – regulations that R. D. Offutt is particularly experienced at getting around.

R.D. Offutt sees White Earth’s requirements as a threat to its golden goose (or golden french fries). Earlier in May, they sued White Earth in federal court, claiming that the tribe lacks the authority to regulate non-members’ activities.

If the potato company gets its way, it would amount to yet another taking of tribal resources. It would worsen groundwater impacts on White Earth and the Pineland Sands, and set a deeply troubling precedent that would erode tribal sovereignty. The effects would ripple outward to other tribal authorities, including those on the other end of Northern Minnesota.

The mining angle

As we covered last June, tribal sovereignty played a central role in stopping the NorthMet (more commonly known as PolyMet) sulfide mining project in its tracks. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa objected to PolyMet’s 404 permit – the “wetland destruction permit” – on the grounds that it would result in violations to Fond du Lac’s water quality standards. The reservation lies downstream of the PolyMet site in the St. Louis River watershed and its members rely heavily on the watershed’s water and fish.

The EPA agreed with Fond du Lac on the permit issue, and asked the permit’s issuer, the Army Corps of Engineers, to revoke it. The Army Corps did so last year, marking perhaps the most critical of the many PolyMet permit reversals that have happened over the last few years.

PolyMet could apply for a new wetlands permit, though the Army Corps said that it “is unable to include sufficient conditions in the CWA Section 404 permit that would ensure compliance with the applicable downstream water quality requirements of the Band.” That means that for the time being, Fond du Lac and others downstream from the PolyMet site in the Lake Superior watershed are safe from toxic acid runoff.

PolyMet’s backers, however, could well be biding their time. It’s likely they’re rooting for major federal changes to tribal power to regulate water, like the ones R. D. Offutt is suing for.

Tribal authority is good news for the water

MEP strongly supports the right of tribes to enforce their own environmental standards, and we’re glad to see them successfully asserting that right in recent years. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the results of lax state regulation on natural resources the tribes depend on.

The St. Louis River estuary, suffering from years of mining pollution, has a serious sulfate and mercury problem that poisons local fish. Sulfate also poisons the wild rice beds that are one of the Anishinaabe’s most important food and cultural resources.

And the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, constructed over vehement opposition from multiple tribes, now snakes its way under Minnesota treaty lands. It hasn’t yet had a major oil spill, but its construction breached multiple aquifers and permanently damaged local ecosystems, and its oil contributes to a worsening climate crisis. The pipeline was approved with few conditions by the DNR, Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and Public Utilities Commission, and the penalties for permit violations amounted to a financial slap on the wrist.

We hope to see Minnesota state agencies like the DNR, PCA, and others act more forcefully to protect the health of all Minnesotans and our waters from big polluters like PolyMet, Enbridge, and R.D. Offutt. They would be wise to take their cue from Minnesota’s tribal leadership.

One Response to “Big Ag latest industry to attack tribal water rights”

  1. Steve Wiley

    What are the prospects, if Democrats have both Congressional chambers and the Oval Office after November, of federal legislation that cements the link between tribal self-determination and tribal control of the natural reources they depend on–like groundwater/aquifers?


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