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Journal of Policy History 12.3 (2000) 339-368

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Exploring the Legacy of Reserve Mining: What Does the Longest Environmental Trial in History Tell Us About the Meaning of American Environmentalism?

Thomas R. Huffman

In the best-selling book Civil Action, Jonathan Harr depicts an environmental pollution tale of frightening contamination and endless litigation in a small Massachusetts town during the 1970s and 1980s. A quixotic and somewhat foolish lawyer pursues two giant and evil corporations through the legal system, seeking justice for his hapless working-class clients. In the end, the solitary lawyer falters when faced with the overwhelming economic and (seemingly underhanded) legal power of the corporations. Justice is not served, if it truly ever is, until the might of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intervenes to force the business interests to admit some wrong and shell out some money.

If the EPA had stepped in promptly, would the complicated litigation in Civil Action have been solved earlier and in a more just manner? Who knows? But the essence of the legal, policy, and political arguments in Civil Action derived from an environmental controversy that began about a decade before the Massachusetts story on the western shore of Lake Superior and in the mining regions of northeastern Minnesota. No best-seller exists to sustain the popular memory of the so-called Reserve Mining case. Even within the current perspective of Minnesota's political culture, where for years Reserve Mining symbolized both the traditional obsession of state policymakers with natural-resource use for economic growth and the béte noire of 1970s environmentalists concerned with ecological destruction and threats to human health, the tale of Lake Superior's travail reappears only infrequently, like the smoldering flame of a partially extinguished peat fire.

Yet the Reserve Mining episode dwarfs Civil Action in every respect, except perhaps in the death of young children--though there is still controversial debate in some scientific circles about the lasting health consequences [End Page 339] of the mine pollution for Minnesota's Iron Range and the north-shore region of Lake Superior. The Reserve Mining story is peopled with fascinating characters like those portrayed by John Travolta and Robert Duvall in the film version of the book. And the basics of its gargantuan history reveal much about the importance of political, economic, and environmental changes that occurred in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. The Reserve Mining case is sometimes noted as "the longest environmental trial in American history." Whether or not this is true is debatable, but the fact remains: it lasted (has lasted?) a long time. 1

To a degree, the Reserve controversy begs concise summary (see the appended chronology). But a tentatively encapsulated description helps explain why there are at least five themes a historian might use to interpret the story and subsequent legacy of Reserve Mining.

In the early 1900s, a group of University of Minnesota engineers (led by Professor E. W. Davis) and mining industry entrepreneurs allied to develop a technological process to extract iron from a hard ore known as taconite, found in plentiful supply throughout the Mesabi Iron Range in the northeastern area of the state. Formed into iron-rich pellets, this product would then feed the Great Lakes' ever-ravenous steel furnaces. The use of taconite by the steel industry was hastened by World War II and the nearly complete consumption of the "natural" (high grade) iron ore from the Mesabi that fueled the American military effort. Consequently, by the war's end, and bolstered by an improving mining tax climate in the state and the burgeoning national demand for steel, Armco Steel (Middletown, Ohio) and other business concerns had proposed a taconite processing plant--Reserve Mining--in the newly created community of Silver Bay on the western shore of Lake Superior, about sixty miles north of Duluth. Republic Steel (Cleveland, Ohio) joined in equal ownership with Armco in 1951, and by 1955 Reserve had began...


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