Thirty years ago this month, a court case changed the rules about how the government deals with pollution. The decision established the principle that the government can force industry to clean up its mess. And if industry refuses, the government can shut it down. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Thirty years ago this month, a court case changed the rules about how the government deals with
pollution. The decision established the principle that the government can force industry to clean
up its mess. And if industry refuses, the government can shut it down. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Arlene Lehto grew up on Lake Superior. Her parents operated a resort near Silver Bay, 50 miles
up the shore from Duluth.
As a child, she liked to throw pebbles into the water. She’d try to get them to land on boulders,
15 feet under the waves.
“But I left in 1957, came back 1968, took my son down to show him how to play the game, and
we could no longer see the boulders.”
Lehto blamed Reserve Mining Company for muddying Lake Superior. Reserve built a processing
plant near Silver Bay in 1955. Huge machines crushed the rock, and separated the useable iron
from the waste.
Reserve dumped the waste rock in Lake Superior.
Lehto and some of her neighbors got together to try to stop the dumping. They asked the state
and federal governments for help.
In the early 1970s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was brand new. One of the first
things it did was take Reserve Mining Company to court. The trial and appeals went on for years.
That was a tough time for the people in Silver Bay. Jim Kelly worked at the plant his whole life.
He says he and his neighbors didn’t believe for a minute there was any harm in the waste rock
they were dumping in the lake. And he says nobody’s ever proved it did cause a problem.
“We worked there. We worked with it every day. And if we thought it was detrimental to
ourselves and our families, we wouldn’t submit them to that. I know I wouldn’t. I would speak
out against it or move my family out of here.”
But in the middle of the trial, EPA scientists suddenly discovered something that scared a lot of
people down the shore, in Duluth.
In 1973, Phil Cook, an EPA chemist, found microscopic fibers in Duluth’s water supply. He
suspected the fibers could cause cancer. The fibers were similar to asbestos, and asbestos was
known to cause cancer.
“At that time the Duluth water supply was essentially unfiltered, because Lake Superior water
was very low in suspended solids. And I was surprised to find that every day this material was in
the water supply.”
The EPA put out a warning about the asbestos-like particles in the water. The government
installed special filters in schools and fire halls. Families began hauling water from the fire halls
to use at home.
The discovery of a possible carcinogen in the water supplies of cities along the North Shore of
Lake Superior turned the case into a major event. The New York Times and national network
television covered it.
The judge was Miles Lord. As the trial dragged on and on, Lord began to believe Reserve was
“I couldn’t believe a thing they said, because they were way out in left field. You had to be there
to realize how spacey this thing was, how out of focus some of this testimony was, by the
defense. There was no credibility to them at all.”
Eight months after the trial began, Judge Lord instructed both sides to sit down and try to work
out a solution. But those negotiations failed.
Finally, Lord took it on himself to try to arrange a settlement. In April 1974, he called Reserve’s
chairman, C. William Verity, to the stand. Lord accused Verity of stalling and dragging out the
court case in order to squeeze the last dollar of profit out of the operation.
“I said to him, ‘Now, can you get this thing out of the water? Can you stop poisoning the people
downstream, and the air and so forth? Can you figure out a way not to make so much dust?'”
Lord was furious with Verity’s response. “He said, ‘We don’t have to, we won’t.'”
That afternoon, Lord ordered Reserve Mining Company to stop dumping its waste in Lake
Superior, effective immediately.
Some 3,000 people were suddenly out of work. The United States lost one-twelfth of its supply
of iron ore.
It was the first time a judge had shut down a major industrial plant to protect the environment.
Reserve appealed the next day, and the appeals court allowed the plant to reopen. The court said
Reserve would have to stop polluting the lake eventually, but it could keep dumping in the lake
until it built an alternative.
Reserve built that alternative — a disposal area on land. Starting in 1980 it piped its waste to the
new pond, several miles away from Lake Superior.
Scientists have still not decided once and for all whether the fibers from the mine can make
But the court case set new ground rules for the debate over the environment.
Industry and the government still fight about how much pollution is acceptable.
But in the Reserve case, the government showed it can shut down an industry that pollutes too
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.