Miles Lord, Guardian of Lake Superior
He's 88 years young, retired from the bench -- but, last I knew, still practicing law in Minnesota. Thirty-six years ago, Miles W. Lord was the federal district judge in Minnesota who presided over a suit brought by the newly minted Environmental Protection Agency entitled U.S. vs. Reserve Mining.
In the 1940s, researchers at the University of Minnesota developed a process to concentrate iron from low grade ore called taconite into marble-sized pellets. As high grade ore in the iron range of northeastern Minnesota was depleted, the taconite concentrate held the promise of desperately needed jobs.
The new process caught the attention of steel companies around the lower lakes. In the late '40s, executives at two of those companies began to plan a facility on Minnesota's Lake Superior shore to utilize the new process. The two steel companies formed a subsidiary named Reserve Mining Company. Iron ore would be mined around Babbitt, MN and processed in the new plant at nearby Silver Bay. The pellets would then be shipped by lake freighter to mills on the lower lakes.
Operations began in the late '50s.
A slurry of waste crushed rock and silt ('tailings') was piped from the plant to the bay at the rate of 47 TONS PER MINUTE, around the clock. As rock filled the bay, the pipeline was extended. The company assured the State of Minnesota that the silt would settle in a deep, offshore trench.
It was discovered later that the silt contained microscopic mineral fibers similar to asbestos. Contrary to the company's prediction, the silt did not settle in the trench, but dispersed throughout the lake, drifting southwesterly toward the cities of Two Harbors and Duluth.
Arlene Lehto, a woman who had grown up on the shoreline southwest of where the plant would be built, returned home after a long absence. She was appalled to find that the water which had been crystal clear during her childhood was cloudy and the bottom covered with silt.
Arlene became something akin to a combination of Karen Silkwood and Erin Brockovich. She began a one woman campaign to hold Reserve Mining accountable. Two attempts were made to run her car off the road, but she didn't flinch. She formed an organization to fight the pollution. Farther down the shore in Duluth, an alarming discovery was to bring Arlene Lehto's efforts new support.
STATE AND FEDERAL VIGILANCE:
Nobody in the various state and federal agencies that should have been paying attention had monitored Reserve's dumping, and Reserve didn't report the outward drift of silt. When technicians at the Duluth water treatment plant discovered asbestos-like fibers in the water supply, panic ensued. Lake Superior water was thought to be so pure that the treatment plant didn't filter it. Asbestos was known to be a carcinogen when inhaled, but nobody knew the effect in water. Emergency filtration was set up at fire stations around the city. A fledgling federal agency, Environmental Protection, began an investigation, and being largely ignored by the mining company, filed suit in 1972 to stop Reserve's discharges.
EPA brought suit against Reserve Mining under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Rivers and Harbors Appropriations Act of 1899. The litigation would go on for a decade, up and down on appeal in the federal courts and in related proceedings in Minnesota agencies and courts. Along the way, other parties would be added and the governments' claims for relief expanded to include abatement of air pollution at the sites of the company's operations.
Minnesota, which had ignored citizens' complaints about the pollution for years, joined the federal suit. Wisconsin joined as well, telling the court that its public trust had been breached; and Michigan, too, entered the fray.
One personality dominated throughout: Judge Miles Lord, steadfast, probing, decisive. Not satisfied with the progress of settlement negotiations, Judge Lord ordered the chairman of Reserve Mining to the witness stand. The judge asked the witness if the company was going to clean up its act. The chairman replied, no, he didn't have to and he wasn't going to.
Not one to mince words or quibble, the judge shut the plant down the next day.* A new reality (Dare I say 'paradigm shift'?) had arrived in Silver Bay and around America.
The Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the shut-down quickly, but gave the mining company a deadline by which to comply with Judge Lord's clean-up order.
The parties could not agree on a site for onshore containment and settling of the slurry, the deadline arrived and a decree in favor of plaintiffs was finally entered.
SOME FINAL OBSERVATIONS:
What had been called the largest body of pure, fresh water in the world had been adulterated without the public's knowledge. There never was any conclusive proof that the mineral fibers in the water were dangerous to public health. All the same, it was inexcusable that the public wasn't forewarned of the possible danger by the company, the State of Minnesota or the federal government.
On the positive side, Judge Lord's diligence and tenacity put the Environmental Protection Agency on a firm foundation, steel barons quaked, and the clean-up of the Great Lakes had begun.
The lesson is that when corporate powers presume to tell you what the science is (such as tailings settling into a deep-water trench), trust if you must, but MONITOR and VERIFY.
We thank you, Judge. The region and the nation are better for your stewardship, and we'll always be in your debt.
* When first reviewing the dozens of court orders entered in this and related cases over a decade, I had missed this order (one of the most important concerning implementation of the Environmental Protection Act), but my colleague, Melissa, found it, for which I am grateful.
You can read this and other posts at my blog:
Use video conversation to talk face-to-face with Windows Live Messenger. Get started.