Reserve Mining Corporation

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Reserve Mining Corporation

In 1947, the beginnings of one of the first classic cases of environmental conflict emerged when the Reserve Mining Corporation received permits to dump up to 67,000 tons per day of asbestos-like fiber tailings from its taconite mining operations in Silver Bay , Minnesota, into western Lake Superior. The Reserve case typifies the conflict that occurs when the complex problems of pollution , economics, politics, and law collide. After decades of investigation and lawsuits, the corporation stopped the dumping in spring 1980, but the change did not come easily for any of the participants.

Taconite is a low-grade iron ore, which can be crushed, concentrated, and pelletized to provide a good source of iron ore. Silver Bay, Minnesota, was created as a result of the mine's development by Reserve, and approximately 80% of the local labor force of 3,500 residents worked at the $350 million facility in 1980. The first permits were given to the company in 1947, on the condition that it would strictly comply with all provisions, including providing continued assurances that the discharges posed no harm to the lake or surrounding inhabitants. In 1956 and 1960, Reserve was allowed to increase its use of Lake Superior water, thus increasing its dumping of waste taconite tailings. This continued until the late 1960s, when two major signs emerged that the lakeand potentially local residentswere being harmed by the waste discharges.

The first sign was the obvious discoloration of the water on the northwest shores of Lake Superior. Up to 67,000 tons of tiny fibers resembling asbestos , a carcinogen , were dumped into the lake each day, turning the water into a green slime from Silver Bay to Duluth, Minnesota, and nearby Superior, Wisconsin. Second, several local citizens made the link between the company's discharge and possible harmful effects on humans when they read about a discovered connection between cancer and asbestos used to polish rice in Japan in the 1960s.

By June 1973, after completing several studies at the request of these local citizens, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the drinking water of Duluth and other northshore communities was contaminated with asbestos-like fibers, which might cause cancer. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency followed with the finding that a suspected source of the fibers was the Reserve Mining Corporation discharge. Duluth and other affected communities installed filtration systems to prevent further contamination of local drinking water supplies, and convinced state and federal agencies to join citizen groups in legal action against the company.

In a series of subsequent court appearances, Reserve continually argued that the company would be forced to close its operations if Lake Superior discharges were stopped, presumably resulting in the demise of the town of Silver Bay as well. Five years of lawsuits seemingly ended on April 20, 1974, when federal District Judge Miles Lord completed a nine-month trial and ordered the plant to cease discharges of taconite tailings into the air and water within 24 hours. Less than 48 hours later, however, the plant was ordered reopened by three judges from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. While concluding that the original permits issued to Reserve Mining were a "monumental environmental mistake," they allowed the company to remain open while it altered its production process to create alternative disposal methods. In June 1974, the governors of Minnesota and Wisconsin filed an appeal of this ruling to the Supreme Court, but were rebuffed when the court refused to reinstate Judge Lord's order. Justice William Douglas' written dissent to the court's ruling stated, "I am not aware of a constitutional principle that allows either private or public enterprises to despoil any part of the domain that belongs to all of the people. Our guiding principle should be Mr. Justice Holmes' dictum that our waterways, great and small, are treasures not garbage dumps or cesspools."

Six years later, Reserve Mining Company and its parent owners Armco and Republic Steel were fined more than one million dollars for their permit violations and intransigence in completing disposal upgrades. Reserve switched to onland disposal, via rail and pipeline, to a 6-mi2 (9.7-km2) basin 40 mi (64.4 km) inland, which kept tailings covered under 10 ft (3 m) of water to prevent fiber dust from escaping. The basin operated efficiently until a production cut resulted in more water and plant effluent being sent to the disposal basin than was used in the plant to concentrate the crushed taconite rock into iron ore. Reserve sought a permit in October 1985 from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to pump water out of the disposal basin to a filtration plant on the Beaver River, which flows into Lake Superior. After several arguments from environmental groups and others, the permit was eventually issued at a lowered level from 15 to 1 million fibers per liter. Operations ultimately closed in the summer of 1986, due to reduced demand for the taconite pellets.

The mine was purchased and reopened in 1990 by Cyprus Mining of Colorado, and operated at 30% of capacity. The one-million-fiber-per-liter limit has generally been met, and thus asbestos-like fibers continue to be discharged into Lake Superior, albeit at a drastically reduced rate from those discharged for decades directly into the largest freshwater lake in the world.

[Sally Cole-Misch ]



Rousmaniere, J., ed. The Enduring Great Lakes, A Natural History Book. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.


Merritt, Grant. "The Reserve Mining Case: Promises, Promises." Great Lakes Focus on Water Quality 1, no. 1 (Fall 1974): 13.

. "The Reserve Mining Case20 Years Later." Focus on International Joint Commission Activities 19, no. 3 (November/December 1994): 14.

"Tailings' End." Time, March 31, 1980, 45.