Hazardous barrels nearly removed from Silver Bay plant

Crews have reached the bottom of a barrel dumping ground at the former Reserve Mining Co. plant in Silver Bay, and contractors are set to cap and cover the site.

Crews have reached the bottom of a barrel dumping ground at the former Reserve Mining Co. plant in Silver Bay, and contractors are set to cap and cover the site.

Since it was first reported in the News Tribune in 2004, the cleanup grew four times larger and almost seven times more expensive than officials expected.

More than 12,500 rusted,

55-gallon drums filled with lead-tainted machinery grease were removed over the past two years, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said.

The cost, including disposing hazardous soils and capping the dump next spring, will hit $14 million.


It's the most expensive Superfund cleanup paid out of the state's coffers. Other sites, paid for by companies responsible, have been more expensive.

But the Reserve barrel dump isn't the only buried mess at Minnesota's taconite plants.

State officials are working with Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. to identify contaminated sites at the old LTV Steel Mining Co. property that Cliffs owns north of Hoyt Lakes. More than 60 contaminated hotspots have been identified on the property, including large amounts of petroleum-

contaminated soil.

"And at least one of the [LTV] sites appears to be an old barrel dump,'' said Doug Beckwith, the PCA's supervisor of the hazardous site assessment team in northern Minnesota. "We haven't done an assessment of that dump site as yet.''

Farther west, inside the Minntac operations at Mountain Iron, MPCA officials know of another dumping site inside a tailings basin. According to a 1984 MPCA site evaluation, U.S. Steel used the dump, which does not have a permit, from 1967 to 1981 to dispose of leaded lubricating grease, paint and solvents, waste oil, wood waste and waste from the company's research lab.

But the MPCA, without any soil or water testing, rated the dump a low priority for cleanup because it wasn't near any known groundwater source. Minntac covered the old dump with dirt in 1984, under an agreement with the MPCA, and built a new permitted landfill nearby, said John Thomas, who leads the MPCA's wastewater discharge office in Duluth.

The MPCA hasn't reconsidered the old Minntac dump for cleanup. And MPCA officials have not yet asked other taconite operations about old dumps at their plants.


"We don't have the staff or resources to go out looking for sites,'' Beckwith said, noting that the site assessment team comprises only four part-time MPCA staff members statewide. "We act on reports from companies and the public. And every year we try to evaluate a list of 50 high-priority sites.''

Common disposal method

State officials don't know how big the LTV barrel dump might be or whether it contains hazardous materials. At Reserve, lead from the grease infiltrated the groundwater but hasn't reached Lake Superior.

Cleveland-Cliffs is cooperating with the MPCA at the old LTV site as part of the agency's successful Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup program that allows companies to clean up their contaminated sites without being pushed into the Superfund system.

About 125 sites in the state enrolled in the voluntary program. Another 75 have been forced by the state onto the current Superfund enforcement program, Beckwith said. More than 100 polluted sites remain on the assessment list without any cleanup plans.

Unlike the former Reserve property, for which ensuing companies operating the plant have no legal environmental liability under a 1989 bankruptcy agreement, most companies that own buried, hazardous waste will have to pay to clean it up -- if the sites are discovered or reported.

At Reserve, steelworkers used the lead-tainted grease to keep conveyors, crushers and other large machinery running. As was the standard procedure at the time, they put the old grease back in barrels, along with thousands of dirty rags, and chucked them over a hill into a gulley.

"That's how waste disposal went in the '40s, '50s and '60s before regulation. It wasn't illegal then,'' Beckwith said.


Because all six of the state's operating taconite plants have large numbers of enormous machines that need lubrication, Beckwith said there may be other grease barrel dumps across the Iron Range that the MPCA doesn't know about. Only when the MPCA receives legitimate tips does it begin the investigation process.

Beckwith said tips from the public, especially former employees, are helpful. The MPCA's Web site has a location to report potentially contaminated sites.

"We had a former Reserve employee tell us they had another barrel dump outside Babbitt. But he was afraid to say any more and we still don't know if that's true or where it is,'' Beckwith said.

Messy cleanup

At the Reserve site in Silver Bay, an escrow account from bankruptcy proceedings paid about $1.1 million of the $14 million cost. The rest comes from a state cleanup fund stocked with fees on hazardous waste and other items.

In addition to barrels, contractors found old tires, corrugated metal buildings, conveyor belts, a fuel tank and more. Anything that wasn't deemed hazardous was put back into the dump to be covered, said Susan Johnson, project manager for the MPCA. Reserve apparently used the dump from 1956 to 1981.

Tests indicated the grease contained lead levels far exceeding federal hazardous-waste standards -- 270 milligrams per liter compared with the standard of 5 milligrams per liter to be considered hazardous waste. Lithium grease, diesel fuel, solvents and heavy metals also were found, Johnson said.

The barrels, leaded grease and polluted soil deemed most hazardous were trucked to Illinois and Texas for incineration at a cost of $12,000 per load. Slightly less-polluted soil was trucked away, mixed with concrete and buried in licensed landfills closer to home.

Runoff at the site will be controlled and diverted to keep it from eroding into and around the old dump. And groundwater and surface water at the site, including Lake Superior, will continue to be monitored.

In addition to the barrel dump, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is trying to clean up about 3,500 rubber tires near what was Reserve's mine pit near Babbitt. The DNR has been unable to find anyone to take the tires because some are so large -- from giant taconite-carrying dump trucks -- that they are too costly to move.

A former Reserve coal ash site near Silver Bay also remains to be cleaned up.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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