Scientific research released on connections between mining pollution and wild rice

Wild rice, or manoomin (Photo courtesy MN Pollution Control Agency)

Several scientific articles describing the relationship between wild rice and a key chemical in mining discharge have recently been made available to the public. The peer-reviewed papers include the results of research that informed Minnesota’s examination of its rules concerning the important natural grain and sulfate.

The paper titles, authors, and summaries are provided below, with links to the full article.

Minnesota had been using a standard adopted in 1973 for how much sulfate could be discharged into waters where wild rice grew. It was based on studies by Dr. John Moyle in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which found that “no large stands of rice occur in water having sulfate content greater than 10 parts per million (mg/L), and rice is generally absent from waters with more than 50 ppm.”

Although the studies were still considered sound, they did not examine the specific mechanism by which sulfate appears to impact wild rice growth. In the face of pressure by the mining industry, the Legislature funded new studies in 2011 to determine if the standard was still appropriate.

The research included laboratory and field research in 2012 and 2013,  led by the University, and with input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ojibwe tribes, and the Department of Natural Resources.

Based on the research, the MPCA recently proposed a new sulfate standard which attempts to factor in the new knowledge about the role of iron, carbon, water transparency, and other factors. The public comment period closed on Nov. 22.

The Evolution of Sulfide in Shallow Aquatic Ecosystem Sediments: An Analysis of the Roles of Sulfate, Organic Carbon, and Iron and Feedback Constraints Using Structural Equation Modeling

Curtis D. Pollman, Edward B. Swain, David Bael, Amy Myrbo, Philip Monson, and Marta Dykhuizen Shore

Aquatic plants, such as wild rice, white rice, and waterlilies that have roots in the saturated soils of wetlands are vulnerable to the buildup of toxic levels of hydrogen sulfide(also called sulfide). Anaerobic bacteria in the soil make the sulfide from sulfate that penetrates the soil from the overlying water. When sulfate in the waterbody is low, sulfide in the soil is low. But when sulfate is high, sulfide has been hard to predict—sometimes low, sometimes high. The analysis of hundreds of wetland samples finds that sulfide can be predicted if two variables in addition to sulfate are considered: organic carbon in the soil, which is the food for the bacteria, and iron in the soil, which removes sulfide from solution. A model of the chemical reactions finds that the three variables, sulfate, organic carbon, and iron, are equally important in determining sulfide. The sensitivity of individual waterbodies to sulfate pollution effects on wild rice toxicity can thus be predicted from the analysis of the carbon and iron concentrations in the soil of a wetland.

Effects of sulfate and sulfide on the life cycle of Zizania palustris in hydroponic and mesocosm experiments

John Pastor, Brad Dewey, Nathan W. Johnson, Edward B. Swain, Philip Monson, Emily B. Peters, Amy Myrbo

Under oxygenated conditions, sulfate is relatively non- toxic to aquatic plants. However, in water-saturated soils, which are usually anoxic, sulfate can be reduced to toxic sulfide. Although the direct effects of sulfate and sulfide on the physiology of a few plant species have been studied in some detail, their cumulative effects on a plant’s life cycle through inhibition of seed germination, seedling survival, growth, and seed production have been less well studied. We investigated the effect of sulfate and sulfide on the life cycle of wild rice (Zizania palustris L.) in hydroponic solutions and in outdoor mesocosms with sediment from a wild rice lake. In hydroponic solutions, sulfate had no effect on seed germination or juvenile seedling growth and development, but sulfide greatly reduced juvenile seedling growth and development at concentrations greater than 320 µg/L. In outdoor mesocosms, sulfate additions to overlying water increased sulfide production in sediments. Wild rice seedling emergence, seedling survival, biomass growth, viable seed production, and seed mass all declined with sulfate additions and hence sulfide concentrations in sediment. These declines grew steeper during the course of the 5 yr of the mesocosm experiment and wild rice populations became extinct in most tanks with concentrations of 250 mg SO4/L or greater in the overlying water. Iron sulfide precipitated on the roots of wild rice plants, especially at high sulfate application rates. These precipitates, or the encroachment of reducing conditions that they indicate, may impede nutrient uptake and be partly responsible for the reduced seed production and viability.

Increase in Nutrients, Mercury, and Methylmercury as a Consequence of Elevated Sulfate Reduction to Sulfide in Experimental Wetland Mesocosms

A. Myrbo, E. B. Swain, N. W. Johnson, D. R. Engstrom, J. Pastor, B. Dewey, P. Monson, J. Brenner, M. Dykhuizen Shore, E. B. Peters

In the water-saturated soils of wetlands, which are usually anoxic, decomposition of dead plants and other organic matter is greatly retarded by the absence of oxygen. However, the addition of sulfate can allow bacteria that respire sulfate, instead of oxygen, to decompose organic matter that would not otherwise decay. The accelerated decay has multiple consequences that are concerning. The bacteria that respire sulfate “breathe out” hydrogen sulfide (also called sulfide), analogous to the conversion or respiration of oxygen to CO2. Sulfide is very reactive with metals, which makes it toxic at higher concentrations. In addition to the release of sulfide, the sulfate-accelerated decomposition of plants releases phosphorus and nitrogen, fertilizing the waterbody. Decomposition also mobilizes mercury (which is everywhere, thanks to atmospheric transport) into the surface water. The microbes that convert sulfate to sulfide also methylate mercury, producing methylmercury, the only form of mercury that contaminates fish. This study demonstrates that adding sulfate to a wetland can not only produce toxic levels of sulfide but also increase the surface water concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, mercury, and methylmercury.

Sulfide Generated by Sulfate Reduction Is a Primary Controller of the Occurrence of Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) in Shallow Aquatic Ecosystems

A. Myrbo, E. B. Swain, D. R. Engstrom, J. Coleman Wasik, J. Brenner, M. Dykhuizen Shore, E. B. Peters, G. Blaha

Research in the 1940s and 1950s found that wild rice grew best in low-sulfate Minnesota lakes, but it was not known why. The correlation was a puzzle, since sulfate is not very toxic to plants or animals. This study found that the problem is sulfide, not sulfate. Sulfate can be converted into toxic levels of sulfide in the soil in which wild rice germinates and roots. Wild rice is an annual plant that must sprout each spring from seed that was dropped the previous fall into wet soil. Anaerobic microbes in the soil make sulfide from sulfate in the overlying water. Lakes, streams, and wetlands that have high concentrations of dissolved sulfide in the sediment therefore have a low probability of hosting wild rice. The study also found that wild rice prefers high-transparency water and cold winters.

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