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Arlene Lehto,a citizen of Duluth, Minnesota has been on a crusade to prevent pollution of Lake Superior. This tenacious drive has put her in conflict with a powerful company, the Reserve Mining Co., which dumps 67,000 tons a day of solid waste called tailings” from its taconite (low grade iron ore) processing plant 60 miles north at Silver Bay, Minn. The tailings have spread through large portions of the Lake’s bottom and the tinier fibers and particles are suspended throughout the water.
To anyone who would listen, Lehto would warn about the contamination, its danger to the public’s health, and the need for law enforcement to require Reserve to stop its 17 years of arrogant waste disposal in the least polluted and largest of the Great Lakes.
In reply, Reserve, a jointly owned company by Armco Steel and Republic Steel, has repeatedly asserted that their tailings were harmless. Nevertheless, the federal government is in court trying to get Reserve to abate its pollution.
Last December, Lehto testified before the International Joint Commission and noted an article in Science magazine which pointed to the possibility that asbestos particles in talc may he responsible for the high levels of stomach cancer in Japan. She noted that these particles were similar to those discharged by Reserve and present in Duluth’s drinking water. Scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Water Quality Laboratory (NWQL) in Duluth, who were at the hearing, went back to their lab‑ oratory in a cold sweat. For she has pointed out a line of inquiry which they had not been pursuing in their research but which could document a eco-catastrophe.
In the following weeks, the scientists documented the presence of a potentially deadly, cancer causing, form of asbestos in staggeringly high levels in the Duluth drinking water. There was no question in their mind that the source of the asbestos was the tailings poured into the Lake by Reserve Mining. After some unnecessary bureaucratic delays at EPA headquarters in Washington, the thunderbolt report was released publicly to Duluth’s 100,000 citizens last month. The report stated: “While there is no conclusive evidence to show that the present drinking water supply in the area is unfit for human consumption, prudence dictates that an alternate source of drinking water be found for very young children.”
EPA officials conceded their purpose was to cautiously inform but not to start a panic. Reserve Mining denied all of EPA’s findings about the source of the asbestos and its harmful nature. For almost two decades, this company, paying very little local taxes compared to the value of its minerals, has either done no research or suppressed information about the composition of its wastes and their health effects. Neither have its owners, Armco Steel and Republic Steel, shown any concern for the Lake which is the drinking water supply of several towns and cities.
My associate, environmental engineer Robert Harris, found people in Duluth, especially those with children, to be worried but not knowing/what to do. Bottled watersales are up. But the people are not receiving the kind of government response to an emergency of this kind that they deserve. Reserve, an employer of about 3200 workers, has been a powerful political force in the area. It has managed to keep many elected and appointed politicians subdued even though other taconite-ore processors dispose of the tailings inland at the mine site and thereby show that Reserve could have done the same.
At present, everyone is waiting for the result of tests by asbestos expert Dr. Irving J. Selikoff and biostatistician for the American Cancer Society, Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond, to determine whether the levels of asbestos in human tissues taken from autopsies in the Duluth area are abnormal. These findings are expected shortly. Dr. Selikoff says that the concentration of asbestos fibers in Lake Superior is 1,000 times greater than the highest levels observed elsewhere in drinking water. In Duluth three weeks ago, he personally would not drink the water.
Obviously, more needs to be known. And techniques of filtering out the asbestos ona municipal drinking water scale need to be developed. But it is beyond doubt that it took a non-scientist, citizen, Arlene Lehto, to point the scientists in the right direction.
The bigger question is: how many other cities and towns will have to learn years too late that their drinking water has been contaminated by industrial polluters?