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Hard-fought United States vs. Reserve Mining changed environmentalism

Reserve Mining Company v. The United States of America is seen as a landmark decision, one that gave the EPA broader powers to regulate corporate pollution.

Aerial view of Reserve Mining's Peter Mitchell Taconite mine
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

A University of Minnesota professor who dreamed that his research would one day bring jobs to the Iron Range. A young single mother turned environmental activist. Iron miners worried about their futures. One of the most highly regarded judges in the state, one of the most powerful corporations in the world, and teams of the finest scientists and lawyers in the country. These are just a few of the players in United States vs. Reserve Mining Company, a legal case that was filed 42 years ago Sunday, resulting in a legal fight that often pitted neighbor against neighbor, and attracted the nation’s attention. The case set a precedent for government oversight of corporate pollution that remains today.

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Since the late 19th century, scientists had been struggling to find ways in which to extract iron ore from taconite, a sedimentary rock containing 25 to 30 percent iron. Long considered worthless because of the massive effort involved in extracting the iron, taconite regained attention during the Depression.

Dr. E.W. Davis, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Mines, had spent 25 years developing a method to extract ore from taconite, and in 1940 had a solution in hand. Excited with his findings, he worked closely with Republic Steel, as well as local politicians, to help streamline the development of processing taconite in Northern Minnesota. By 1955, the Reserve Mining Company, a subsidiary of Republic Steel and Armco (The American Rolling Mill Company), was up and running, with the sole purpose of extracting iron from taconite.

The process of removing iron from taconite involves crushing the hard rock down into an almost talcum powder-like consistency, removing the ore with magnets, turning the metal into pellets and then dumping the remaining sediment. By 1960, taconite mining in the Iron Range was responsible for 15 percent of all U.S. iron ore.

Tailings went into Lake Superior

Reserve Mining Company Village, View of Silver Bay
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Reserve Mining Company Village with a view of Silver Bay

However, for every ton of iron ore produced, 2 tons of waste material has to be disposed. The Reserve Mining Company dumped the waste material, called tailings, into Lake Superior, with permits approved by the state of Minnesota.

Initially considered no more harmful than sand, by the late 1960s local environmental organizations, commercial fishermen and sport-fishing groups began to complain about the taconite sediment. They argued that the tailings were killing fish, permanently clouding the pristine waters, and even ruining Superior as a source of fresh water for Duluth and the surrounding communities. 

Arlene Lehto was a newly divorced single mother who had returned to her home in Silver Bay, about an hour north of Duluth, after a number of years away. Her parents once ran a resort on Superior, and on returning she was shocked to find that the lake, once crystal clear, was now clouded with sediment. Working with a geologist, and as a spokesperson for the newly created Save Lake Superior Association, Lehto made the case at a Dec. 7, 1972, hearing of the International Joint Commission in Duluth that the tailings not only ruined the pristine nature of the lake, but that they contained cummingtonite-grunerite, which partially makes up asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent.

EPA initially skeptical

Although the Environmental Protection Agency was initially skeptical of Lehto’s concerns, as more and more scientists began to weigh in on the taconite deposits, the agency was convinced of the danger, and sought to stop Reserve Mining from dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior.

Justice Miles Lord
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Judge Miles Lord

On Feb. 17, 1972, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Reserve Mining Company in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, beginning a single trial that would last over a year, with appeals dragging the case on until 1980. Judge Miles Lord would preside.

Pretrial arguments took a sensational turn in June 1973. The federal government called a specialist in asbestos exposure, Dr. Irving Seikoff, with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Seikoff argued that the lake contained asbestos fibers, and that a thorough study should be done on the effects of lake water on the human body. At first, Judge Lord put this testimony under an order of secrecy, but the information couldn’t be contained. Eventually Lord allowed the EPA to issue an asbestos warning to the public.

Naturally, this resulted in a panic amongst the citizens of Duluth and the North Shore, which relied on almost pure, unfiltered Lake Superior water for their drinking supply. Bottled water sold out in grocery stores and local politicians began to investigate bringing a filtration system to Duluth. The information also galvanized the public across the Midwest. Legislators from both sides of the aisle, most notably Republican Gerald Ford (then a U.S. representative from Michigan) and Michigan Democratic Sen. Phil Hart, joined forces to try to stop Reserve Mining from dumping taconite tailings in Lake Superior.

Public fixated on the trial

The argument of the presence of asbestos-like fibers in the tailings defined the trial when it officially began in August of 1973. The general public, already alarmed by reports of asbestos deaths around the country, were fixated on the trial, which was covered in the national press. Furthermore, the Reserve Mining Company did itself no favors in its claim that it was “impossible” to dump the tailings on land, when during the trial subpoenaed documents showed that, in fact, Reserve had already examined dumping the sediment on land as an alternative to lake dumping.

As was to be expected, both the federal gernment and the Reserve Mining Company relied upon a prestigious lineup of scientists to buttress their case. Friends and neighbors living in the North Shore were often pitted against one another, those benefiting most directly from the Reserve Mining’s jobs defending the plant and diminishing the environmental concerns, while those living on the shore and perhaps less entangled in the steel company fighting, in their view, to save the lake.

After many months of testimony, Judge Lord had decided that he had seen enough. He had found that the arguments of the Reserve Mining Company weren’t convincing, and that there was, in fact, a serious health and environmental threat in the tailings being dumped into Lake Superior. In a perhaps quixotic effort to save mining jobs and stop the pollution, Lord wanted both sides to work out some sort of negotiated settlement, but this failed miserably. He even called the chairman of the company, C. William Verity, to the stand, asking him in essence to stop dumping. Not only did Verity refuse, but instead he read a statement stating Reserve’s waste wasn’t dangerous, that it would bear no responsibility, and it would build a land dump provided the government pay for it. This only served to further inflame Lord, who, in April 1974, ordered the plant shut down.

Plant closed, then reopened

The plant was closed temporarily, but a federal appeals court allowed Reserve to reopen the mine and to continue dumping in the lake until it could find an alternative method. In 1980, Reserve began to deposit waste on an inland pond, a practice that continues with the companies that mine taconite to this day.

Since then, United States v. Reserve Mining Company is seen as a landmark decision, one that gave the EPA broader powers to regulate corporate pollution, a practice unheard of before the lawsuit. Taconite mining is still practiced in Northern Minnesota, and Lake Superior has returned to its original clarity. 

Correction: This version corrects the lawsuit title’s word order and the date of Arlene Lehto’s hearing testimony.