The dirty legacy of Reserve Mining
By Greg Vandegrift
KARE 11 News
Published November 29, 2006
On a September afternoon, a stiff breeze from the east sends giant wave after giant wave crashing into Duluth’s rugged, rocky shoreline. It is quite a show.
As the lake spits out spray, Arlene Lehto sits next to the greatest of the Great Lakes and recalls 'Lake Superior was my love growing up.'
Her childhood days were spent on the north shore and all these years later, Lehto doesn’t take her first love for granted.
"People think because it's so big, that you can just put anything and everything in it. And that is not true," declares Lehto.
The tempest in the lake this day seems to hearken to how much Superior’s had to swallow.
Arguably, Minnesota’s most distasteful dumping chapter came from Silver Bay’s former resident, the Reserve Mining Company. Lehto says, "What that company did back then was so irresponsible, that we're going be living with it for a very long time."
In the 1970s, Reserve Mining and its dumping were big, big news both in the papers and on TV. According to documents from back then, 67,000 tons a day of so-called taconite tailings, or powdered, iron-ore waste rock poured into Lake Superior. Some compared it to 50,000 junk cars a day.
The dumping raised concerns about lake quality as well as safe drinking water. You see, the waste contained microscopic fibers that appeared similar to a certain form of asbestos dust that caused cancer.
Down the shore in Duluth, former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Regional Director John Pegors remembers discovering tailings had made their way out of the Lake, showing up once in a friend's toilet tank.
The dumping dispute eventually wound up in federal court.
"I demanded that the Corps of Engineers furnish pure water to the people of Duluth," remembers former Federal Judge Miles Lord.
In what would become a landmark case, Lord recalls asking a Reserve Mining executive to stop polluting. "He told me he didn't have to."
Lord ordered the plant closed.
"I had heard enough lies, misrepresentation, greed," Lord recalled.
John Pegors said when he heard the news, "I was happy as a clam, I really honest to God, you know I really didn’t think they would stop them."
Though an appeals court reopened the plant, eventually the dumping in Lake Superior ended.
"Often it's called a case that alerted the world to the dangers of industrial pollution," Lord reflected.
In the 1980s, Reserve went bankrupt. And today, while there’s a new plant tenant, Reserve’s old tailings delta remains. So does another ghostly reminder of Reserve.
Up on the hill, overlooking the lake, two gigantic machines claw at an open pit.
Peering inside, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Project Manager Susan Johnson says, "This is an industrial waste landfill."
It’s another Reserve mess.
Johnson, who's overseeing the clean up, points out, "The people in the excavators have supplied air in case they run into an unknown waste, which we have done."
Since May 2005, except for the depths of winter, crews have been grave digging, so-to-speak. They’re exhuming Reserve’s industrial dump. It was in use from 1955 to 1980. There were no permits required back then.
Johnson lists what they’ve removed, "A lot of rags, plastic sheet and metal pipes." And most notably, barrels.
She says they've recovered 5,000 barrels - and that was the running count in early September.
The barrels contain lubricant that is basically industrial grease with lead in it.
Many of the barrels are open, crushed or decaying.
Johnson recalls, "We did find four to six feet, at the very bottom of the landfill, of very heavily contaminated grease, that we're guessing came out of the barrels."
By mid-September crews had recovered nearly one thousand tons of grease.
The MPCA says the grease is seeping underground toward another, former Reserve dump site.
"Lake Superior is one of our treasures of Minnesota. It is our mission of the Pollution Control Agency to protect that lake," Johnson says.
The MPCA believes cleaning the dump will eliminate the source and spare the lake. But with Reserve long gone, the clean up’s soaking Minnesota taxpayers for nearly $7 million.
"The state agreed to take liability in 1989, so yes the state is paying," according to Johnson.
And so millions of taxpayer dollars must now pay for another Reserve mess covered for years, by of all things, taconite tailings.
Former Federal Judge Miles Lord reflects, "They now are asking school children and housewives to pay to clean up their mess. If that's fair, I want to hear about it."
Sitting next to the mighty lake Arlene Lehto asks, "My God will this ever go away? Will this ever end?"
The taconite tailings that stirred Lehto to action nearly four decades ago are now settling into Superior’s sediment according to one EPA expert. But for Lehto, memories of the Reserve case whip up her passion for her first love and the environment.
Lehto warns, "If we are not good stewards of this earth, we are going to have to suffer the consequences or our children or grandchildren are. There is a price to be paid."
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