After 11 years of court fights and battles with environmentalists, Reserve Mining Co. today stopped dumping iron ore wastes into Lake Superior.
The wastes, called taconite tailings, contain asbestos particles that may cause cancer.
The company had been dumping more than 67,000 tons daily into the lake since the plant opened in 1955.
"We are very pleased the controversy is over," said company spokesman Donald Wright. The company finally gave in to the demands of environmentalists who took it to court 11 years ago.
U.S. District Court Judge Miles Lord ordered the plant closed at the end of the first trial in 1974, but an appeals court allowed the plant to resume operations a few hours later.
In 1977, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered the state to give Reserve Mining permits for on-land disposal, and a judge set April 15 of this year as the deadline for ending discharges into the lake.
Wright said he was "very happy" that Reserve beat the court-imposed deadline by a month.
The plant will be closed for about seven weeks while workers complete a $370 million on-land disposal system.
Construction on the system began in 1977.
Environmentalists cheered the event but there were no demonstrations or ceremonies to mark the end of the fight.
Charles Dayton, an environmental lawyer for the Sierra Club of Minnesota, said, "The whole process shows the difficulty of keeping a major industrial corporation like this from dragging its feet.
"It shows it is very difficult to win against a corporation, but there's no question it was worth it. The lake is priceless and protecting it is worth almost anything."
The plant produces taconite pellets from low-grade iron ore brought by rail from the Iron Range. The pellets are used to make steel. When the plant resumes production in May, the tailings will be carried inland by a slurry pipeline and deposited in a dammed area near Silver Bay.
When the taconite plant was built it was assumed that tailings would settle on the bottom of the lake. However, evidence was discovered linking the tailings with asbestos fibers that were found in the drinking water taken from the lake by several communities along its shores.