DULUTH, Minn., May 16, 1969, NYTimes — “The role of politics in pollution was highlighted in the recent Federal hearings here on the potential pollution of Lake Superior, the vast 31,820-square-mile expanse of blue water that is, from a practical stand-point, the last of the uncontaminated Great Lakes…”
This is the opening line of a New York Times article about a situation which for years put Lake Superior in the headlines across USA and Canada. News about the situation became common knowledge in households around Lake Superior, as residents became increasingly concerned as the situation evolved, twisted, turned, and disturbed.
The situation centres on Reserve Mining at Silver Bay, Minnesota on Lake Superior’s U.S. North Shore. The company funneled tonnes of rock into Lake Superior every day. Enough to fill a railroad car every two minutes. Around the clock. For 25 years. As a result, the company became embattled in a protacted legal battle and the case became an environmental and legal landmark.
To understand what happened at Silver Bay, it is helpful to understand the taconite production process at its mine. Mine rock delivered to the Reserve Mining facility was crushed, separating useable ore from waste rock to produce dark grey taconite pellets for the steel industry. Taconite pellets contain about 65% iron, created by crushing ore into fine powder and separating out magnetite through magnetism. Bentonite clay is then used as a binder, combined with limestone and then fired at high temperature. The resulting pellets are hard, durable, and well suited to bulk marine shipping across the Great Lakes in freighters, ending up in steel mills on the lower lakes. As an example, the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank on November 10, 1975, took some 26,000 tons of taconite pellets to the bottom of Lake Superior.
Reserve mining began discharging to Lake Superior in 1955. Rock waste, or “tailings” slurry, contained approximately 40% asbestos fibres. For many years, concern over this discharge continued to grow. In fact, this was an early example of “binational” concern about Lake Superior. The issue gained an extremely high level of attention in the media and residents of Lake Superior cities like Duluth, Thunder Bay, Marquette, and Sault Ste. Marie became very aware of the Reserve Mining situation.
Concern centred on one thing – drinking water. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemists found microscopic fibres in the water and tests of Duluth’s water supply showed 100 billion fibres per litre of water. Research into water chemistry was made easier because fibres were not found naturally in Lake Superior, making research results very clear. When national television networks and the largest newspapers in U.S., like the New York Times, began to cover the story, standard denials about health concerns were no longer enough. Communities around the entire lake began to take very close notice, especially since government agencies noted a link between asbestos to cancer.
Reserve Mining tailings facilities on Lake Superior at Silver Bay, Minnesota, June, 1973. Photo: By Donald Emmerich, Photographer (NARA record: 3045077) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The situation brewed for many years and became a full-scale legal battle in August, 1973 when three states and a consortium of environmental groups took Reserve to court. Headlines from New York Times newspapers of the day read:
Politics Roils Hearings on Lake Superior Pollution (May 19, 1969)
Pollution Fought on Lake Superior (March 4, 1973)
Reserve Mining Permitted to Continue Lake Dumping (June 15, 1974)
Judge Miles Lord presided over the case. Lord had deep roots in Minnesota’s Iron Range, having grown up there with brothers who worked in the mines and even an in-law who owned a mine.
Reserve Mining contended they had no alternative but to dump the tailings slurry into the lake. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency didn’t believe the company had not considered land based disposal. Finally, a court order forced the company to produce documentation, including detailed engineering designs, showing that they had in fact, long considered land based disposal of tailings. The case was beginning to round a corner.
The case didn’t end there. Reserve appealed and won. They were granted leave to continue dumping to Lake Superior but had to construct a land-based disposal system and start utilizing this new system once complete. Jobs were cited as an important part of this decision. Health risk was weighed against this important driver of Minnesota’s economy. Reserve built a $370 million disposal system almost 6 square miles in size. The company stopped dumping to Lake Superior.
Settlement Ends Mine Dumping Suit, (April 25, 1982)
The decision on this Northern Minnesota situation, directly linked to human health and the well-being of thousands of residents within the Lake Superior basin, was a legal landmark. The case also became one of the most expensive pollution prevention cases in U.S. history. The decision has also produced a legacy. Careful assessment of risk is now a central element of legal cases involving the environment, human health, and the economy.
On August 7, 1986, Reserve Mining Company filed for bankruptcy. Liquid assets were sold and the company did not reopen. Assets were purchased by Cyprus Minerals three years later and operation was started with new owners and management.