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Autobiography relates life of Duluth's Grant Merritt: Environmental pioneer helped lead charge to stop dumping mine waste in Lake Superior

The cover of Grant Merritt's book.1 / 2
Grant Merritt2 / 2

DULUTH — The 1970s was a heady time for environmentalists in Minnesota and across the country.

After decades of industrial exploitation of natural resources — air, water, land, wildlife and forests — environmentalists won a string of victories that seemed to stem the tide of destruction as Americans woke up to the consequences of unrestricted pollution.

The Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and Environmental Protection Agency were born at the national level in the 1970s. In Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency was formed as an independent agency headed by an independent board of citizen directors. A copper-mining moratorium was imposed. And Reserve Mining Co. was ordered by federal judges to stop dumping 67,000 tons of taconite tailing mine waste into Lake Superior every day.

Duluth native Grant Merritt didn't just have a window seat to this environmental awakening, he was helping drive the bus.

Merritt has chronicled his life of environmental activism, DFL politics and legal battles in his new autobiography titled "Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota's Environment," published by University of Minnesota Press.

Merritt was the third Duluth generation of the family that, while maybe not technically discovering iron ore in Minnesota, were among the first to mine and ship it successfully. He spends a good portion of the book explaining how his family of early iron mining entrepreneurs were cheated out of their fortune, and how northern Minnesota was cheated out of huge potential wealth, by a conniving John D. Rockefeller. The family's lost legal and contractual battles in the 1890s ultimately funneled much of the wealth gained from Minnesota iron ore to Pittsburgh and New York, Merritt argues, instead of Duluth and the Iron Range.

It's with those deep roots in the Northland's mining history that Merritt would, somewhat ironically, emerge in the 1970s as public enemy No. 1 of the state's mining interests, the United Steelworkers Union and Iron Range DFL politicians. First as a private attorney for grass-roots, nonprofit groups working to protect Lake Superior, and then as the first commissioner of the independent Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Merritt helped lead the battle to stop Reserve from dumping tailings into Lake Superior.

It seems almost ludicrous today that the state would ever have allowed Reserve to start despoiling Lake Superior when the world's first-ever taconite processing plant opened in the 1950s. But at that time almost no one objected. Reserve stood as a model of Minnesota-born innovation, processing low-grade taconite ore into a valuable product for steelmaking. It saved the state's mining industry, which had nearly run out of high-grade ore, and became the model for the entire taconite industry that lives today.

Except for the Lake Superior part.

After years of public relations, political and legal wrangling, scientific evidence eventually mounted that showed the tailings had a negative impact on the lake's ecosystem, as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan waters, and that the tailings may have been a threat to human health. It was the discovery of asbestos-like fibers in the tailings, and evidence that the company knew about the fibers for years before the issue became public, that lead to court orders for Reserve to move to on-land tailings disposal.

Reading the accounts today, the jobs-vs-the-environment division over Reserve at the time seems eerily similar to the current debate over copper mining proposals in Minnesota. But in the '70s the jobs weren't potential or abstract — there were 2,900 employees at Reserve as the company claimed (later proved a false claim) that on-land disposal would force the company to close.

The Reserve battle lasted 13 years and is still considered Minnesota's most heated environmental issue ever. It was the formative, even defining issue not just in Merritt's legal and political career, but his life.

Merritt — who practiced environmental and transportation law for 50 years — went on to fight other high-profile battles, winning a case to keep a huge landfill off the bluffs of the Minnesota River in Eden Prairie, and losing a battle to force ballast water regulation to keep the fish-killing VHS virus out of Lake Superior. He also served on the Minnesota Environmental Quality Council and Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

But he's the first to say that the Reserve case helped define an entire environmental movement.

Throughout his career (and throughout the book) Merritt rubbed elbows with some of the state's most famous political names, including Hubert Humphrey, John Blatnik, Walter Mondale, Wendell Anderson, Rudy Perpich, Nick Coleman and Miles Lord. Sometimes it was agreeable; sometimes it was acrimonious. But Merritt managed to keep moving his issues forward, kept winning battles.

Merritt is keen to see how both his family's effort to develop the iron mining industry in Minnesota and his efforts to thwart a mining company's pollution of Lake Superior are equal examples of how one family, one person can make a difference on a huge scale.

"The history of my Merritt ancestors became for me a template of perseverance for pursuing on-land disposal for the Reserve taconite tailings," Merritt writes in the book's prologue. "The story of Reserve Mining is one of a pivotal battle and ultimate decision that altered environmental legislation on a national scale. It stands today as a historic example and illustration of the power of citizen and political advocacy."

"Iron and Water" is a short book, just 170 pages, but it is a wealth of history that many younger Minnesotans might not be aware of. For folks who lived through the stories, it's a reminder of how things have changed, as Merritt would say, some for the better, some not.

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