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What’s Going On At The Mile Post 7 Tailings Dam?

According to a report aired last October on Minneso­ta Public Radio, the Reserve Mining Company of Silver Bay engaged in the prac­tice of dumping waste rock and sediment from their ore operation directly into Lake Superior from 1955 to 1974. The practice persisted for 25 years, at a rate of 47 tons of waste material per minute, seven days a week. The sediment and sludge dumped from Reserve’s mining and processing op­erations turned the waters around Silver Bay to a mud­dy gray-green color and fouled Lake water 50 miles away in Duluth, causing concern among residents and city leaders alike when water analysis revealed that “asbestos like fiber” that “might cause cancer” was present in Duluth’s drinking water. As with the current divide in public opinion on the crisis of climate change, there were those in 1974 who were alarmed about what they saw happening to the beautiful, pristine wa­ters of Lake Superior and those who thought the prac­tice posed no real threat to the environment. The court case that ensued ignited one of the first battles of the En­vironmental Movement.

The trial began with gov­ernment scientists arguing that Reserve’s sludge was spreading “a plume of pol­lution across the western end of Lake Superior,” and that “the asbestos-like par­ticles in city water supplies could pose a significant health risk to residents.”

Reserve Mining’s experts disagreed, saying that “the fibers in the waste rock were not identical to asbestos,” and that “people were not being exposed to enough of the fibers to cause a health concern.” The trial last­ed eight months and argu­ments from both sides were heated. The short version of this portion of the story is that presiding Judge, Miles Lord, found the legal team from Reserve to be less than transparent in their argu­ments. He finally asked Re­serve Chairman C. William Verity to stop polluting the lake, the air and “poisoning the people downstream,” to which Verity respond­ed, “We don’t have to, we won’t.”

Judge Lord ordered Re­serve to immediately stop dumping its waste into Lake Superior. This was the first time that a Judge risked a major industrial plant shut down to protect the envi­ronment. Reserve Mining threatened to close its Silver Bay operation and put 3000 local residents out of work. The company also appealed the decision.

The Federal Court of Ap­peals reversed Judge Lord’s decision and allowed Re­serve to continue to dump tailings into Lake Superi­or until another waste site was found. Minnesota state agencies (the Department of Natural Resources and the Pollution Control Agen­cy) conducted a nine month contested case hearing and concluded that another tail­ings basin location would be a less risky alternative than the Mile Post 7 site, which is located 3 miles northwest and 600 feet above Silver Bay, Beaver Bay and Lake Superior.

Fast forward to 2020, when Northshore Mining, owned by Cleveland-Cliffs, an­nounced plans to expand the Mile Post 7 facility which currently holds 40 years worth of tailings waste.

Concerns about safety, the long term operation of the facility and the possibility of human and environmen­tal destruction in the event of a catastrophic failure have raised serious ques­tions among both residents and environmental organi­zations.

It should be noted that the Mile Post 7 dam is a class 1 dam and it is no wonder that there is and should be public concern. According to the Minnesota Revisor’s office, a class 1 dam means that failure of the dam could “cause loss of life, serious hazard or damage to health, main highways, high-value industrial or commercial properties, major public utilities or serious direct or indirect, economic loss to the public.” In May of last year, Paula Maccabee, Advocacy Director and Council for WaterLegacy, a grassroots advocacy group based in Duluth, sent a com­munication to Bill Johnson, Mining Planning Director for the Minnesota DNR, requesting a new Environ­mental Impact Study (EIS) and outlining the findings of the EIS from 1976.

That original EIS recom­mended that a different site for the tailings dam be chosen because of the “potential for significant environmental effects of a dam breach at Mile Post 7.”

Those effects were de­scribed as follows. “A 1000 foot breach in the south dam at Mile Post 7 would produce a 28 foot high wall of water moving down the Beaver River valley at more than 20 miles an hour to Lake Su­perior. The EIS from 1976 also acknowledged that in the event of dam failure, “significant water resourc­es would be destroyed, im­paired and polluted” and that “the threat to Lake Su­perior would not end when operations cease but would persist indefinitely.”

The recent expansion plans for Mile Post 7, proposed by Northshore Mining/ Cliffs, call for “relocating the existing railroad em­bankment, extending Dams 1 and 2, constructing a Dam 1 rail switchback, and exca­vating clay from a borrow pit for dam construction.” The project also includes approximately 20,665 lin­ear feet of stream mitiga­tion at six separate sites. Water Legacy, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, The Grand Por­tage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Sierra Club North Star Chapter and oth­ers have requested a new ESI from the DNR prior to the proposed expansion moving forward. The Mile Post 7 site holds approx­imately 119 million long tons of tailings. Expansion would add an additional 562 million long tons to the sludge that is already there.

The DNR responded to the request in a Record of De­cision dated March 4, 2024. In the news release describ­ing that decision, the DNR denied the need for a new EIS, saying, ”Because the project proposes to use the remaining capacity of the tailings basin studied in the original EIS for the facility, and subsequently autho­rized by applicable permits, the DNR does not consid­er the project to be an ex­pansion of the Mile Post 7 tailings basin. The tailings basin dams are subject to extensive regulatory over­sight pursuant to the DNR’s Master Permit, issued by the agency pursuant to a de­cision by the Minnesota Su­preme Court in 1977.

Another DNR document reads, “The DNR has con­cluded that an Environmen­tal Impact Statement (EIS) is not required because the project does not have the potential for significant en­vironmental effects. The justification for this deter­mination is contained in the Record of Decision. The Record of Decision also contains the Department’s responses to all written comments received on the Environmental Assessment Worksheet during the 30-day public review and com­ment period (held April 18 to May 18 of 2023). Issu­ing this Record of Decision concludes the state envi­ronmental review process for this project according to the State Environmen­tal Review rules, Minne­sota Rules part 4410.1000 to 4410.1700. This project can proceed to permitting and approvals.”

Maccabee, citing the fact that data on the impacts of a possible dam breach were redacted by the DNR be­fore they were provided to the public, stated that “the public hasn’t been given a clue on the environmental impact of this expansion. DNR has failed to describe either the probability or extent of harm from dam failure in its decision.” She also pointed out the appar­ent lack of transparency from a government agency that people expect to inform and protect them when it comes to potential environ­mental threats.

All of this raises quite a number of questions that the public deserves to have clear answers to before ex­pansion of the Mile Post 7 tailings pond takes place.

• Why is DNR insisting that they don’t consider the project to be an expansion of the site when the height of the tailings dams, length of the dams, and sheer vol­ume of tailings stored will all be increased?

• Why would the DNR deny a request for a current EIS and green light a tailings pond expansion project by relying on a report for re­newal that was issued 47 years ago?

• Technology and construc­tion practices for tailings basins have improved since 1974. Shouldn’t the public know whether these tech­nological improvements would increase safety at the site?

• The Mile Post 7 tailings basin will be a permanent waste storage facility. How specifically will the site be monitored for safety and what plan could possibly be realistic to ensure dam safety for hundreds of years after Northshore’s mining operation shuts down?

• Does the public have any recourse other than going to court, in light of the lack of transparency and DNR’s failure to consider risks and alternatives?

It always helps when we can learn from history. Readers may want to research the way communities around Polley and Quesnel Lakes, in British Columbia, were impacted in the wake of the Mount Polley tailings dam breach that happened in 2014. Like Silver Bay and surrounding communities, the people living near the Mount Polley tailings dam depended on mining and tourism for their livelihood. Clearly, Northshore Mining is important to the people and economy of the region, but so is Lake Superior. We deserve environmental review of the Mile Post 7 expansion project and a se­rious look at safer alterna­tives prior to work actually beginning.

Rick Evans
Rick Evans
My wife, Marsha Kinzer (a proud DEHS Greyhound, class of ‘77) introduced me to the North Shore on vacation in 2012. It became our regular escape when the stress of our careers in education became overwhelming, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the breathtaking scenery, the nice people, and “salad” containing Jell-o and marshmallows. So you can either blame or thank my loving wife for my being here, because when we needed to choose a retirement hometown, Marsha advocated hard for her beloved Duluth, and here we are, six months later. Yes, this will be my first northern Minnesota winter. Yes, I welcome thoughts and prayers. Government, public policy, and social justice weighed heavily in the curriculums I taught at the high school level over a thirty-eight year career. In addition, we were a laboratory school focused on critical thinking in conjunction with technical and scientific writing. So when I found myself adrift on the great ocean of retirement and spied a raft, I jumped at the chance to take up what I’d left behind…minus the bad teachers’ lounge coffee. My position at the NSJ allows me to combine my passions for government and writing, and it’s helping me to feel less out of touch in new surroundings. When I’m not being “Cubby” (Marsha’s favorite new nickname for this green reporter) I enjoy pointing at eagles and saying, “Look, honey. There’s an eagle.” I’ve had an active side hustle as a professional musician for almost as many years as Charlie Parr. As a guitarist/singer/songwriter, I graced the stages of clubs and festivals around southern Wisconsin, including an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. Should I even mention A Prairie Home Companion, or am I the only one here old enough to remember what that is? Look! An eagle!
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