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Legal Learning: 'Page turner' profiles locally famous judge

James Manahan

Anyone who has lived in Lake County for several years will remember Judge Miles Lord, the federal judge who presided over the Reserve Mining case. Now there is a new biography of the judge written by Roberta Walburn and published by University of Minnesota Press. It's very well written — a "page-turner" — and I learned a lot about that famous case.

For example, Judge Lord "was not eager to wade into this no-win, jobs-versus-environment debate. If anything, he was predisposed to favor Reserve Mining."

"His own father-in-law had discharged wastes into lakes near Crosby-Ironton, standard fare for the times."

And this: "Reserve Mining was dumping 67,000 tons of waste tailings — every day — into the lake that supplied water — unfiltered — to more than 200,000 residents of Duluth and other towns along the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota and Wisconsin."

Reserve Mining claimed that there was no asbestos or anything else harmful in the tailings.

"Bottled water was trucked in," Walburn reports, "but the mayor of Silver Bay, site of the plant, reported that only one-half gallon had been purchased, and that, he said, 'was to a lady who used it in her steam iron.'"

Back in 1947, Reserve Mining asked the state of Minnesota for permits to discharge the tailings into Lake Superior. The state issued the permits in 1947, and Reserve began full-scale operations in Silver Bay in 1956.

"The wastes — a muddy slurry of tailings — were directed down concrete-and-steel chutes and cascaded in waterfalls fifteen feet wide into Lake Superior."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and later the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, led by Grant Merritt, filed suit to stop the discharge.

"When the trial started, in August 1973, Judge Lord warned Reserve that the company should prepare a contingency plan for on-land disposal," which Reserve said was "not feasible."

But "few people tried to predict how the judge would rule. He and the lawyers dug in for the longest and most complex environmental trial in U.S. history."

Reserve's bottom-line defense: "There was no evidence of an increase in the incidence of cancers in the North Shore communities."

"Show me one dead body," they said.

On April 20, 1974, Judge Lord issued his order: no more discharge into Lake Superior, and no more discharge into the air. So the plants in Silver Bay and the mine in Babbitt shut down. More than 3,000 employees were out of work.

But Reserve appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held a quick hearing in a hotel room where the judges were staying for a conference, and they put Judge Lord's order on hold. The plant and mine quickly reopened.

It wasn't until March 14, 1975, that the Eighth Circuit judges issued their final decision, which affirmed Judge Lord's injunction, but gave Reserve Mining "a reasonable time" to convert to on-land disposal. Judge Lord opposed Reserve's plan to dump the tailings on land outside of Silver Bay (Milepost Seven), and thought they should return the wastes to their mine pit at Babbitt.

Eventually, the Eighth Circuit removed Judge Lord from the case and Milepost Seven was approved. But many people, Walburn says, credited Judge Lord with saving Lake Superior.

For a different point of view, go to the library and check out "Judgment Reserved" by Frank Schaumburg (1976). He concludes that "the alleged public health hazard ... was never proved to be an actual hazard to North Shore residents."

Walburn's book has equally fascinating day-by-day descriptions of the famous Dalkon Shield litigation, the case against the pharmaceutical industry for price-fixing, the Rajender lawsuit against the University of Minnesota for sex discrimination, and the ruling that high school girls must be allowed to participate in boys' sports.

Lord's entire career as U.S. district attorney, Minnesota attorney general and federal judge is told in this fascinating book. The author, Roberta Walburn, is herself listed in "Minnesota's Legal Hall of Fame: The 100 Most Influential Attorneys in State History."

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer. He can be reached at