Tire waste another Reserve Mining legacyThe name “Reserve Mining Co.” always will be associated with taconite tailings in Lake Superior, the state’s most heated environmental legal battle.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
The name “Reserve Mining Co.” always will be associated with taconite tailings in Lake Superior, the state’s most heated environmental legal battle.
But Reserve left much more than tailings behind when the company closed in 1986.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is moving this summer to clean up one of the state’s largest tire dumps — an estimated 3,100 tires from the giant trucks that hauled iron ore out of the Peter Mitchell open pit mine outside of Babbitt.
Another 150 big tires need to be cleaned up near the Silver Bay processing plant.
The tire cleanup is the second major effort in recent years to remedy a pollution mess left behind by Reserve. In 2007, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency finished excavating a large, illegal dump in Silver Bay where Reserve buried thousands of barrels of lead-tainted grease, waste oil and garbage. More than 12,500 rusted, 55-gallon drums were removed from the Silver Bay site, on the hill overlooking Lake Superior, at a cost of $14 million.
There also was an ash pile and sludge pit to clean up.
The tires at the mine site, up to 8 feet in diameter with 25 to 40 plies of steel, weigh nearly a ton each.
“If that estimate is about right, that’s the equivalent of about 1 million passenger tires. That’s a huge number,” said Liz Gelbmann of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “Of the 12 million tires we’ve cleaned up across the state, mostly in the ’80s and ’90s, we only had a half-dozen or so sites that big.”
About 2,300 of the giant tires are stacked on dry, mostly level ground — albeit with trees now growing between them.
Another 800 are in wetlands that will be tricky to work in, dumped in a ravine of sorts with full-sized trees growing right through the piles.
“This is apparently what they did back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s when they had a bad tire to get rid of. … And with all this sharp rock, they had a lot of them,” said Dave Antonson, project supervisor for the DNR. “This was probably the accepted practice. There really weren’t any laws on it back then.”
Last month Antonson toured the tire site, braving bloodthirsty mosquitoes and climbing over the big tires, in many cases neatly stacked four high and spread across about five acres.
The DNR hopes to advertise for bids next month and have the winning contractor start work yet this year. It may take two years to remove all the tires.
“At least they are concentrated in these couple of sites. We aren’t finding them scattered in the woods or anything,” said Dan Wolf, a supervisor for Cliffs Northshore Mining, which now owns and operates the mine and plant in Silver Bay. Cliffs is cooperating with the DNR on the cleanup even though the firm isn’t liable for the mess.
Wolf noted that all of Cliff’s mine truck tires are now traded back to the company’s new tire vendor for proper disposal.
The state demands that only licensed waste tire haulers or processors bid on the giant recovery project and insists that the tires, which will be hauled away on semis to be shredded, be either recycled into a new rubber product or burned as fuel.
“We don’t want them ending up in some other ravine somewhere in another state,” Antonson said. “But we also don’t want to leave them out here. I think the biggest issue is fire.”
Some of the money for both the Babbitt and Silver Bay cleanup came out of a $2 million pollution cleanup escrow account that was set aside in the 1980s when the taconite mining and processing company declared bankruptcy and closed. The rest will be picked up by Minnesota taxpayers under an agreement reached in 1989 when the plant reopened as Cyprus Northshore Mining Co.
“There’s some money left in the escrow account. But we don’t really know what the bids will be, so we don’t know if it’s enough to cover it,” Antonson said.
In 1989, Denver-based Cyprus-Amax bought the former Reserve Mining Co. at Babbitt and Silver Bay for $52 million. In 1994, Cleveland-Cliffs bought the plant after Cyprus spent about $30 million on improvements. Cliffs renamed it Northshore Mining Co.
Reserve was the state’s first large-scale taconite operation, opening in 1955. The ore was mined near Babbitt and moved by train to Silver Bay for processing. Reserve was the subject of Minnesota’s most-heralded pollution battle, from 1969 into the 1980s, over the plant’s dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior. A federal judge eventually found that the tailings, which carried tiny asbestos-like fibers, probably were an environmental and human health problem.
Reserve eventually complied with court orders and began dumping the waste tailings on land starting in 1980. But Reserve’s parent companies faltered and the company filed for bankruptcy during the economic crash of the mid-1980s, when the U.S. taconite and steel industries were battered by a global recession and foreign competition.
Under the bankruptcy agreement, as an incentive to find a company to quickly reopen the plant and get steelworkers back on the job, state officials agreed that the new owners would be exempt from the pollution liability left by Reserve.