A Giant Step Backwards?

Back in the 1970s, a Silver Bay, Minnesota, mining company was dumping large amounts of rock waste, which was discovered to contain substantial amounts of asbestos, into Lake Superior.
A court ruling required the company, Reserve Mining, to construct a land-based disposal site for the asbestos-containing materials. In addition, the company was forced to cut back on its asbestos fiber emissions to levels normally found in Minneapolis-St. Paul, some 130 miles south of Silver Bay. Ohio-based Northshore Mining, which took over Reserve Mining, continued with the cleanup efforts. By the early 1980s, the amount of asbestos fibers in the air around Silver Bay was considerably lower than those in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Since then, asbestos levels in St. Paul have dropped significantly. Since the language used in the court order requires that as the corporate successor to Reserve, Northshore Mining must still conform to the St. Paul standard, they are now not in compliance.

A representative of Cleveland-Cliffs, parent company of Northshore Mining, now says that the language should be changed to reflect the fact that according to standards established at the time, the Silver Bay operation is in full compliance. “…we believe we satisfied the requirement in the fiber levels,” says LaTisha Gietzen, spokesperson for Cleveland-Cliffs. Two environmental groups disagree, and have filed citizen lawsuits against Northshore. The Save Lake Superior Association, formed back in the 1970s to stop Reserve from dumping its wastes into the lake, has joined forces with the Sierra Club in an attempt to force the mining company’s compliance. In response, Northshore is asking that the original court case, now well over thirty years old, be reopened in order to determine what constitutes an acceptable level of asbestos fiber emission. Many local residents consider that the air quality comparison with Minneapolis-St. Paul is arbitrary, and Northshore Mining is the only operation in the area required to monitor the air quality near its plant. However, the local rate of mesothelioma is twice that of the state at large. Unfortunately, investigations into that issue could go on for many years, as could the current litigation between Northshore and the environmental group.