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John Blatnik's contradictory role
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John Blatnik, shown here in 1950, represented northeastern Minnesota in Congress for nearly 30 years. He was active in passing environmental protection laws, but balked at investigating allegations against Reserve Mining because of its economic impact in the region. (Photo by Propotnick Studio, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

Silver Bay, Minn. — Everyone involved in the Reserve Mining case knew the stakes were high. The question of where Reserve should dump its waste was a thorny issue in Minnesota politics for years. John Blatnik played a contradictory role.

Blatnik represented northeastern Minnesota in Congress for nearly 30 years, and served on the House Public Works Committee. The Blatnik Bridge between Duluth and Superior is named for him. It's one of many projects Blatnik brought to his home district.

He also wrote some of the country's early environmental laws.

"He deserves a lot of credit for the early water pollution control legislation, as early as 1948," says Grant Merritt, the first head of Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency and an activist in the DFL party for many years.

"We give him credit for that, and still do. And he then, of course, became known as Mr. Taconite, and the two clashed over the Reserve case," says Merritt.

Blatnik was a booster of the new taconite technology being pioneered by Reserve. Northeastern Minnesota depended on iron ore mining, and the high quality ore was gone. If taconite didn't succeed, most people thought the Iron Range would die.

He deserves a lot of credit for the early water pollution control legislation, as early as 1948 ... And he then became known as Mr. Taconite.
- Grant Merritt, first head of the MPCA

In 1969 the Interior Department held a conference on pollution problems in Lake Superior, including the dumping of tons of waste rock into the lake by Reserve Mining. The conference was the mechanism set up to enforce the environmental laws Blatnik had sponsored. But he didn't want the conference to take place.

"Blatnik was upset as all belly-hell, because a prominent reporter for the New York Times wrote up this case and accused Blatnik of dragging his feet and intervening on the side of Reserve," Merritt recalls. "Blatnik went berserk. He came here and held news conference out in the hallway outside the conference. It was kind of a messy scene."

As far as the reporter's charge that Blatnik dragged his feet, Merritt says it was accurate, "as far as I know."

Blatnik pressured the Interior Department to bury a study that showed the plant in Silver Bay discharged more sediments into the lake in 12 days than all the rivers on the U.S. side contributed in a year. The study also found heavy metals and discolored water 18 miles away from the plant.

The scientists who did that study worked at a new federal water quality lab in Duluth. Blatnik had brought the lab to his district -- one of the many plums he picked as an influential congressman.

Grant Merritt says the lab's role in ultimately forcing Reserve to stop dumping in the lake was one of the ironies of the Reserve case.

"(Blatnik) would keep saying, 'I got that lab.' His answer to what was going on was, 'Wouldn't have anything here if it weren't for that lab -- I got that lab.' Maybe that's one thing that could have been different," says Merritt. "I wish we could have convinced Blatnik that we're not trying to shut down the taconite industry. I come from mining family, I'm not against mining. We wanted to shape them up and have them do what Erie was doing, or Hibtac or Minntac."

Those other mines had been built after Reserve, and they all dumped their waste rock in contained disposal ponds. Reserve was the only one dumping in Lake Superior.

Merritt says John Blatnik never was able to reconcile his concern for the environment with his determination to protect a big employer and major economic engine in his district.

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