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Legal Learning: Merritt autobiography details interesting local history

James Manahan

Since we're talking about the famous Reserve Mining case (see my column two weeks ago on the book "Miles Lord" by Roberta Walburn), I'd like to recommend a new book called "Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota's Environment," just published by University of Minnesota Press.

It's the autobiography of Grant Merritt, now 84 years old, looking back on his family history of fighting the Rockefellers, his growing up in Duluth, DFL politics and his years as head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Here are some things I learned about the Reserve Mining case. When the Minnesota Department of Conservation and the Water Pollution Control Commission originally issued permits in 1947 allowing Reserve to dump its waste tailings into Lake Superior, they included a triggering mechanism to withdraw the permit.

The tailings were not to include any material quantities of matter soluble in water. The tailings were to have no material adverse effects on fish or on public water supplies. The permit provided for revocation if any of the conditions were violated.

However, in 1969, when Charles Stoddard reported that the permit was being violated, Reserve Mining and Congressman John Blatnik did everything they could to discredit the report. Ralph Nader and Robert Traver (author of "Anatomy of a Murder") got involved as environmental champions, and the first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970. Soon, Reserve Mining Company and Silver Bay, Minn., became national news.

On Feb. 17, 1972, the Nixon administration filed suit against Reserve Mining. The trial began in August, 1973, and lasted nearly nine months. Judge Lord's order requiring on-land disposal of the tailings, which Grant Merritt calls "a courageous decision by a courageous judge," was eventually upheld by the Eighth Circuit court of appeals.

Reserve stopped dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior on April 15, 1980, and since then the tailings have been pumped 9 miles away into the Milepost 7 basin.

Merritt says, however, that when the Silver Bay plant was sold in the 1980s to Cliffs Mining Company, the production at Silver Bay was reduced to 6-8 million tons of pellets per year. As a result, he says, the water balance at 10 million or more pellets per year has been lost, resulting in too much water and tailings entering Milepost 7 than water taken from the tailings basin to make the pellets in the plant.

The company had to build a treatment plant by the Beaver River and discharge from there into the river, which runs downhill to Lake Superior. The company and the MPCA agreed on a maximum number of asbestos fibers of 1 million fibers per liter, which was later raised to 6 million fibers — still far less than when there was direct dumping in the 1970s.

Merritt says that even this could be avoided if the company would transfer production from one of its other taconite plants on the Iron Range to Silver Bay so that the water balance of 10 million pellets would be met.

I talked to Paul Carlson, general manager of the Silver Bay plant, about this claim by Grant Merritt, and he told me it isn't true. He would not explain further, saying that he does not have authority to comment on such issues.

Merritt's book has a lot of other environmental history in which he was involved, such as an Experimental City, a virus in Lake Superior, fighting the Eden Prairie landfill and working to preserve Isle Royale.

It's a lot of interesting history that many of us — especially younger readers — don't know.

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