The former Reserve Mining started dumping 67,000 tons of taconite waste and used oil into Lake Superior in 1956, a year after Grant Merritt graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth.

It took 20 years before Reserve was forced to shift to on-land disposal by a federal judge in the face of evidence of environmental and health threats and growing pressure from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Merritt, a commercial lawyer from Duluth, was a key Minnesota protagonist against the waste practices of Reserve during his 1971-75 tour as the first boss of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. And he’s a key player in Minnesota’s modern-day environmental movement that has evolved, as once-dirty utilities now herald low-carbon, wind and solar energy and conservation, and the public increasingly accepts or champions a cleaner economy.

“I get accused of shutting down plants and that I was anti-mining,” said Merritt, who also represented the trucking industry in private practice. “I’m not. Some environmentalists are. But I’ve enjoyed the chance to be a factor [in a cleaner environment and economy].”

Merritt, 84, who still does some environmental work, has written a candid, pointed book about his work and the often tumultuous, barbed and politically contentious environmental flaps in which he was involved — particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, the turning point for a cleaner Minnesota.

“Iron and Water; My Life Protecting Minnesota’s Environment,” published by University of Minnesota Press, is a good read. Particularly for those of us who can remember the first Earth Day in 1970; New York’s Love Canal; chemically choked rivers that caught fire; and people sickened by leaching toxins that bubbled up from buried solvents or out of unfiltered smokestacks.

To be sure, we’re still dealing with pollution. However, we’ve learned that it’s imperative to integrate sound environmental practices with industrial development to avoid horrendous pollution and cleanup tabs.

And we’re growing the economy using energy more efficiently and tapping cleaner sources.

Merritt, ironically, was the grandson of one of the first iron miners in Minnesota. And Merritt displays his populist streak in detailing through historical records how his family effectively was forced off the Range by titanic industrialist John D. Rockefeller in the 1890s.

First as a lawyer for Lake Superior guardians and then as the first leader of the MPCA, Merritt spearheaded the campaign against the Superior-dumping Reserve, a subsidiary of a profitable industrial giant that had pioneered processing low-grade taconite ore to make steel.

The despoliation of Lake Superior, not really considered in the 1950s, was seen as a grave danger by the 1970s.

“I was driven to set the record straight on my family and the Iron Range and provide the inside story on Reserve Mining,” Merritt said last week.

That big section of the book is full of tales of political shifting and intrigue, hanky-panky between Reserve’s lawyers, local elected officials and more, in the face of mounting scientific evidence that Reserve’s dumping was threatening the lake.

Merritt, a Democrat, has praise for William Ruckelshaus, a Republican and the first head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He resisted political pressure and joined with Great Lakes states that sued to pressure Reserve into dryland disposal of the wastes.

The other big battle, among many over the years, was trying to replace hundreds of rat-infested, polluting, open-burn dumps, with sanitary landfills that had enough of a clay liner to prevent leaching. It’s still an issue.

As a private lawyer in 1987, Merritt was retained by a homeowner group in Eden Prairie to fight the former Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) plan to expand the Eden Prairie landfill. It had been dogged by toxic fires, chemical clouds and methane explosions, which BFI had sought to cover up. BFI offered cash settlements to the city and some owners, in an increasingly residential area, as part an expansion plan in the late 1980s.

That plan was rejected by 1990. And Browning-Ferris went to work on a plan to remediate the big pollution problems and close the dump.

The polluting of beautiful lands near the Minnesota River also inspired Hennepin County officials to accelerate proper disposal or recycling of hazardous wastes and building Hennepin County’s garbage-to-energy incinerator. It was controversial, but it decreased the need for more landfills.

Hennepin County says it burns about a third of the 1 million-plus tons of garbage generated by residents and businesses annually. More than 40 percent of such waste is now reused, recycled or composted through private and public efforts.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune columnist-reporter since 1984; nstanthony@startribune.com.