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The legacy of the Reserve Mining case
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The Reserve processing plant at Silver Bay dumped 47 tons of waste rock into Lake Superior every minute. The court case that forced Reserve to stop the pollution was an early battle in the environmental movement. (Photo courtesy Twin Citian magazine)
People visit Lake Superior to feel the power of nature or the peace of a quiet walk on the beach. But Lake Superior was once a battleground. Reserve Mining Company used to dump its waste rock into the lake. Tons of sediment poured into the lake every day. For 25 years, the water near the plant was gray-green and muddy. Duluth's drinking water, 50 miles away, was contaminated with a fiber that might cause cancer. A court ultimately forced Reserve to stop the dumping, laying down the principle that the government can force industry to clean up its pollution.

Silver Bay, Minn. — Arlene Lehto grew up on Lake Superior. Her parents operated a resort near Silver Bay, 50 miles up the shore from Duluth.

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Image Arlene Lehto

"One of my favorite games was taking different colored pebbles from beaches, and throwing them down off the cliff," Lehto says. "You used to be able to see the huge boulders under the water." Lehto says the boulders were visible as much as 15 feet under the surface.

"And the game was, if you got your pebble to land on one of those boulders and stay there, you won," Lehto says. "But I left in 1957, came back 1968, took my son down to show him how to play the game, and we could no longer see the boulders."

Arlene Lehto blamed Reserve Mining Co. for muddying Lake Superior. Reserve started up in 1955. The company hauled trainloads of rock from the mine to the processing plant at Silver Bay. Huge machines crushed the rock, and separated the useable iron from the waste.

Reserve dumped the waste in Lake Superior.

The lake

Over the years, the waste rock spread out into a flat expanse of land at the edge of the lake. It's now a third of a mile from the plant to the edge of the water. It took 25 years of dumping waste rock to build this stretch of flat land.

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Image The delta

Denny Wagner calls it the "delta." Wagner is a chemist with Northshore Mining, the company that now operates the plant originally built by Reserve Mining.

Every now and then, Wagner drives out onto the delta.

In the Reserve days, the rock poured out of the plant, mixed with water. The muddy slurry rumbled toward the lake in two long chutes that looked like giant playground slides. The waste poured into Lake Superior like a muddy waterfall.

"As the tailings delta grew from the plant out into the lake, these chutes would be extended," says Wagner.

The chutes were built of concrete and steel. They were as wide as a country road. They funneled tons of rock into the lake every day. They dumped enough to fill a railroad car every two minutes. They did this around the clock, for 25 years.

Now, grasses and wildflowers are poking up through the flinty ground of the delta, slowly turning the waste rock into soil. A local youth group planted pine trees here.

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Image Denny Wagner

Thirty years ago, Denny Wagner ran Reserve's environmental lab. It operated 24 hours a day, analyzing water samples, and studying the plant and animal life of the western end of Lake Superior. He says the research showed the waste rock wasn't hurting anything in the lake.

"There was no significant adverse impact to Lake Superior," says Wagner. "That's the conclusion I came to at the time, being the lab supervisor, going through all the data, reviewing all the reports. That's what it seemed to show to us."

But that's not the way it seemed to Walter Sve. Sve is a commercial fisherman. His father came from Norway in the 1920s. He lived and fished just down the shore from Silver Bay. Walter started helping as soon as he was old enough to row a boat out to set the nets.

Sve says the fishing was good, until Reserve Mining started up its processing plant. Sve says Reserve's ground-up waste rock turned to mud and coated the bottom with goo. The herring couldn't lay their eggs anymore. For 25 years, the Sves got no herring in their nets.

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Image Walter Sve

"I kept on moving out to get into cleaner water over the years," Sve says. "And finally by '64 I was seven miles out in the lake. That's awful stormy to fish that far out in the lake, but I had to try to make a living for family, because I had a wife and two children."

Sve and his father complained for years to the state and federal governments. They wanted Reserve to stop dumping in the lake. Finally the government started to listen.

In the early 1970s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was brand new. One of the first things it did was file a lawsuit against Reserve Mining Co., asking a judge to force the company to stop dumping in the lake. The lawsuit made people in Silver Bay nervous.

The town

The town of Silver Bay sits on a hill above the processing plant. The shopping center parking lot offers a view of Lake Superior.

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Image Silver Bay

In the booming 1950s, Reserve Mining Co. built the curving streets and the trim houses of Silver Bay, and sold them to workers, with no down payment needed.

Jim Kelly is proud of Silver Bay. He points out the high school and the shopping center, built by Reserve Mining and given to the town.

Kelly came here to work at Reserve in 1971. Kelly and his neighbors didn't believe for a minute there was any problem with the waste rock they produced in such huge quantities.

"We worked there. We worked with it every day," Kelly says. "And if we thought it was detrimental to ourselves and our families, we wouldn't submit them to that. I know I wouldn't. I would speak out against it or move my family out of here."

Kelly says the lawsuit was hard on the people in Silver Bay.

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Image Jim Kelly

"You worried about your income, you worried about how you were going to put things away for college," Kelly says. "Should you buy a new home? Should you fix up the home you got?"

The town fought back. Silver Bay and neighboring cities hired an attorney and intervened in the case on the side of Reserve. They organized bus trips to St. Paul to lobby legislators. They had parties and rallies to keep up their spirits.

But in some ways it was like a civil war. The controversy pitted neighbor against neighbor.

Arlene Lehto was the young mother who brought her son back, only to discover the lake was too cloudy to toss pebbles at boulders under the waves. She helped start a group called the Save Lake Superior Association. The group joined the government's lawsuit against Reserve.

Lehto says people ostracized her because of it. She says her church asked her to leave, and so did the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.

"I was, twice, nearly run off the road," Lehto says. "But I don't scare easily, and I don't take to the woods easily."

Lehto remembers one time when she was nearly run into the Beaver River. She recognized the driver. She says he worked at Reserve.

"I'm sure he felt very threatened that he'd lose his employment," Lehto says. "If the plant shuts down, your house isn't worth anything, and who's going to buy it? And I understood their position."

The fibers

While the people in Silver Bay worried about their jobs, and argued with critics like Arlene Lehto, the battle over Reserve Mining was moving 200 miles south, to a courtroom in Minneapolis. And what had started as a local squabble was about to explode into a national controversy.

The Environmental Protection Agency had asked a federal court to force Reserve to stop dumping its waste in Lake Superior.

Scientists on both sides were busy studying the lake's currents, trying to learn how far the dirty water was traveling, and whether the heavy loads of sediment were affecting fish and other creatures in the lake.

Then, scientists found something that terrified a lot of people living along the big lake.

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Image Phil Cook

Phil Cook, who was a chemist with the EPA, discovered microscopic fibers in the cloudy water, and he suspected the fibers could cause cancer. The fibers were similar to asbestos, and asbestos was known to cause cancer.

"This was not found naturally in Lake Superior," says Cook. He and his colleagues studied water and sediments throughout the lake and became convinced the fibers came from the Silver Bay plant. "So the fact it wasn't found naturally made it an ideal tracer of the tailings."

Cook and his colleagues found microscopic fragments of the waste rock in the water supplies of Duluth and Two Harbors, both downstream from Silver Bay.

"At that time the Duluth water supply was essentially unfiltered, because Lake Superior water was very low in suspended solids," says Cook. "And I was surprised to find that every day this material was in the water supply."

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Image Asbestos-like fiber

The EPA put out an advisory about the asbestos-like particles in the water. Soon, a lot of families were looking around for safe drinking water. Kathee Johnson was one of them.

"We had three children, and there was no question in my mind," says Johnson. "In order to live with myself, we had to carry water."

Fire halls around the city installed filters to trap the tiny particles. Kathee Johnson got a big bucket from her uncle.

"A huge, huge stainless steel container. It was quite heavy. And my husband or I, every day, went and got water. And the schools eventually had filtered water," says Johnson.

The discovery of a possible carcinogen in the water supplies of cities along the North Shore of Lake Superior turned the case into a major event. The New York Times and national network television covered it.

The trial

The trial began in August, 1973. The presiding judge, Miles Lord, had grown up on the Iron Range. His brothers had worked in mines, and his father-in-law had owned them. Lawyers for both sides regarded him as a fair judge.

The government's scientists said Reserve's discharge was spreading a plume of pollution across the western end of Lake Superior. They said the asbestos-like particles in city water supplies could pose a significant health risk to residents.

The mining company's experts disagreed. They said the fibers in the waste rock were not identical to asbestos. And they said people weren't being exposed to enough of the fibers to cause a health concern.

Three states and various environmental groups joined the lawsuit against Reserve.

During the trial, Reserve said it had no choice but to dump its waste in Lake Superior. Company executives said it wasn't even possible to dispose of the waste, which they called tailings, on land.

That claim got them into big trouble.

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Image Byron Starns

Byron Starns was a young attorney helping to argue the case for Minnesota's brand new Pollution Control Agency. He recalls a turning point in the trial. "Ken Haley, who was director of research and development for Reserve, was testifying about whether it was feasible to put the tailings on land. He testified it wasn't, and they'd never studied it," Starns says.

But Starns didn't believe it. He thought it was possible to dump the waste on land, and that Reserve must have made contingency plans to do it. Starns subpoenaed the company for any documents it might have about planning for on-land disposal. The subpoena forced the company to reveal that it had seriously studied dumping the waste on land.

"Boom -- the documents came in," Starns says. He describes Reserve's lawyers bringing in many boxes full of detailed engineering plans, even including bid documents, for an on-land disposal basin. "You can imagine, that was a major turning point in how our case looked to Judge Lord, or anybody else for that matter," Starns says.

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Image Maclay Hyde

Newspapers accused the company of covering up evidence. But one of Reserve's lawyers, Mac Hyde, says it was natural for a company with such a big investment to try to defend itself.

"The company was trying to survive," says Hyde. Hyde says the court had issued an order to both sides about what evidence they had to turn over. It was up to Reserve officials and their legal team to interpret the order. "And somebody made the call that some of these documents didn't have to be disclosed. I think that turned out to be mistake," says Hyde.

Certainly it tried the patience of Judge Miles Lord.

"I couldn't believe a thing they said, because they were way out in left field," says Lord. "You had to be there to realize how spacey this thing was, how out of focus some of this testimony was, by the defense. There was no credibility to them at all."

Eight months after the trial began, Judge Lord instructed both sides to sit down and try to work out a solution. But those negotiations failed.

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Image Judge Miles Lord

Finally, Lord took it on himself to try to arrange a settlement. In April 1974, he called Reserve's chairman, C. William Verity, to the stand. Lord accused Verity of stalling and dragging out the court case in order to squeeze the last dollar of profit out of the operation.

"I said to him, 'Now, can you get this thing out of the water? Can you stop poisoning the people downstream, and the air and so forth? Can you figure out a way not to make so much dust?'" Lord recalls. "He said, 'We don't have to, we won't.'"

Lord was furious. That afternoon, Lord ordered Reserve to stop dumping its waste into Lake Superior, effective immediately.

Some 3,000 people were suddenly out of work. The United States lost one-twelfth of its supply of iron ore.

The news flashed around the country. It was the first time a judge had shut down a major industrial plant to protect the environment.

The legacy

But the story wasn't over. The company appealed Judge Lord's decision.

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Image On-land disposal pond

A federal appeals court allowed Reserve to reopen the plant. The court said the company would have to stop polluting the lake eventually, but that Reserve could keep dumping in the lake until it built an alternative.

Reserve built that alternative -- a disposal area on land. Starting in 1980 it piped its waste to the new pond, several miles away from Lake Superior. The current owner, NorthShore Mining, continues to dispose of its waste there.

In ruling that Reserve could temporarily continue to use Lake Superior as a waste disposal area, the judges in the appeals court said the fibers weren't dangerous enough to justify putting people out of work.

That was no surprise to the attorneys involved.

"In the early '70s, the fact that a lake was green instead of blue wasn't the end of the world to most people," says Byron Starns, the lawyer for the state of Minnesota.

Starns says the judges found themselves doing something that hadn't really been done before. Now it's called risk assessment.

"They're sort of balancing," Starns says. "Look at all the harm that would be caused by shutting it down." The judges weighed the costs of throwing people out of work and wiping out a key part of the regional economy - against the possible health risks from the fibers. "And that turned out to be one of the more interesting things, from a legal point of view, that the Reserve case kicked off - this risk assessment analysis," says Starns.

The risk is still unclear. Scientists have still not decided once and for all whether the fibers from Reserve Mining could make people sick.

But the courts came away from the Reserve case with a clear answer.

The fight established a new reality for industry. Since the Reserve case, the government gets to decide how much industry can pollute.

Today, everyone accepts the fact that the government sets pollution standards. Industry hardly ever fights those regulations in court.

But the battles do go on. Now, we fight over what the standards should be. How much pollution is too much? How much risk should we accept?

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