Cleaning up Reserve Mining’s toxic mess
Crews are working to clear a landfill that could contain more than 4,000 barrels of toxic waste left by the former Reserve Mining plant at Silver Bay, Minn. Tons of grease also need to be removed.
Excavators pulled up crushed barrels, loads of industrial waste and timber along a ridge overlooking Lake Superior on Thursday, part of a massive $5 million cleanup at the former Reserve Mining taconite plant along Lake Superior.
About 2,700 55-gallon drums have been unearthed so far, along with wood, rags, sheet metal, hard hats, conveyor belts, cable and industrial pipes.
Most of all, said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency project leader Susan Johnson, there are tons of black and yellow grease dumped at the site between the early 1950s and 1980, when federal rules prohibited such disposal.
That grease, heavily contaminated with lead, was used to lubricate the plant’s immense rollers, crushers and bearings that pulverized ore so it could be processed into taconite pellets.
“We’ve recovered big globs of grease just sitting there on the bedrock,” Johnson said. “As far as we can tell it has not reached Lake Superior, but it will if we don’t get this cleaned up. It’s a time bomb.”
The site is about 250 feet above Lake Superior, which is about one-third of a mile away.
Monitoring wells have shown that the grease has begun moving slowly down the hill in ground water, Johnson said.
Cleanup is very messy
To recover the hazardous materials, cleanup crews wearing respirators and protective clothing are digging up the entire landfill and sorting through it, scoop by scoop.
“Everything gets tested,” said Steve Pierson, site supervisor for Bay West, one of two contractors doing the work. “Last year we ran into some purple iridescent stuff, but it turned out not to be hazardous.”
Crushed drums and grease are being sent to incinerators in Texas and Illinois, said Johnson, who estimated that the cleanup is 40 percent complete. What happened, she said, is that Reserve Mining workers took grease and other waste from the taconite plant to the ridge and dumped them into a natural depression, or swale, that was about 20 feet deep. Then, they crushed the barrels with bulldozers as they covered the area with taconite tailings.
Reserve declared bankruptcy in 1986 and was required three years later to establish an escrow account of $2 million to pay for cleanup and reclamation costs. In an effort to reopen the plant, state officials arranged for its future owners to bear no liability for pollution problems that they did not cause.
Northshore Mining, which currently operates the taconite plant, does not need to pay for cleanup costs, and has been cooperative with the state in allowing access to the property for studies and excavation, Johnson said.
Reserve’s escrow account is exhausted, she said, and additional funds to clean up the company’s pollution are coming from the state Superfund and a special legislative appropriation.
Company was controversial
Burying drums full of toxic materials is only part of Reserve’s environmental history.
The company dumped taconite tailings for years into Lake Superior, and was sued by those who claimed the asbestos-like fibers could cause human health problems. After a decade of court battles that started in the 1970s, Miles Lord, then a federal judge, ordered the company to stop dumping the wastes into the lake.
Many people who lived in and near Silver Bay rallied to support the company, coming to the Legislature for lobbying efforts and opposing those seeking to shut down the operation through the courts.
Silver Bay is about 200 miles north of the Twin Cities along Hwy. 61.
Lord said on Thursday that he wasn’t surprised that Reserve also polluted the land.
“The legacy of Reserve Mining is corruption and poison,” he said. The company ignored the environment because it had economic muscle and political clout to do so, Lord added.
Chuck Williams, a former Reserve Mining manager and former MPCA commissioner, said the company should not be criticized harshly for how it managed wastes. “That’s the way we did things then,” he said. “It was not illegal.” Williams said that the MPCA has known about the company landfill for years, and called the cleanup “a good news story.”
Another problem yet to be solved is 3,500 used truck tires – most of them 8 feet in diameter – that Reserve piled on a 10-acre site near its mine south of Babbitt, Minn. Steve Dewar, mine-land reclamation field supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the tires are a fire hazard.
The agency signed a contract with a firm that wants to use them as cattle troughs in the Dakotas, he said, and removal is expected to begin next week. Reserve’s coal ash pile in Silver Bay also needs to be cleaned up, Dewar said.
Johnson said the buried drums recovered from the former landfill could total more than 4,000 before the project is finished this fall. Uncontaminated trash will be put back into the landfill, she said, which will be capped. Groundwater near the site will need to be tested for years, she said, to ensure that Lake Superior and a nearby stream are protected.