Part of a series based on interviews conducted for the Minnesota Foundational Environmental Laws oral history project, focusing on passage and uses of the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (1971) and the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (1973). The project is funded by the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant program; audio interviews and transcripts will be housed in the Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
An Agate Original
Many people in Minnesota’s political world recognize the name of Grant Merritt. He is perhaps the best-known environmentalist of his generation. Merritt was a fierce fighter in the Reserve Mining controversy, a divisive battle that set the pattern for many later fights seen by many as pitting environmental protection against jobs. He was the second person to serve as head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He’s writing a book for University of Minnesota Press, so many of his experiences are fresh in his mind.
I visited Merritt in his modest rambler in New Hope, where he and his wife, Marilyn, raised their three children. On the shelves in his home office are classic books on law and the environment, and on the walls are photos of Gov. Wendell Anderson and other notables who played important roles in his life. Dressed casually in a red and brown plaid shirt and well-worn corduroys, Merritt speaks in a gravelly voice that carries the energy and enthusiasm of an experienced campaigner who still relishes a good fight.
Merritt counts it as a major piece of luck that back in the late 1960s, as a young lawyer in Minneapolis, he came across a bill drafted by University of Michigan law professor Joseph Sax, designed “to give ordinary citizens an opportunity to take the initiative in environmental law enforcement,” as Sax described it later. Specifically, the measure authorizes individuals to bring suit against any public agency or private entity to protect natural resources.
Merritt gave a copy of the Sax bill to young State Senator Wendell Anderson in 1969. Anderson immediately introduced the measure in the Minnesota legislature, but it was too late in the session to achieve passage. Shortly after Anderson was elected governor, he used his Special Environmental Address to the Legislature in April, 1971, a year after the first Earth Day, to urge passage of what became the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act among other measures. The Republican-controlled legislature passed MERA and Anderson signed it into law, one year after the Michigan law was signed by Gov. William Milliken.
To Merritt, MERA is the most important environmental law we have. “State agencies don’t always do what they’re supposed to do,” Merritt said, “so you can’t rely on the government to solve environmental problems. Citizens play a vital role.”
It didn’t take long for citizens to embrace that role. Among several cases brought within weeks after MERA was passed was that of a farmer near Albert Lea who used it to fight a planned road. Bill Bryson had been working to improve wildlife habitat on part of his 330-acre farm, and he didn’t like Freeborn County’s plan to straighten a road by running it through his duck pond. The Minnesota DNR and the Sierra Club supported Bryson. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the law, and Bryson prevailed in his suit, setting a precedent that continues to influence court cases today.
Early battle: Reserve Mining
Citing an example of the state doing a poor job of protecting resources, Merritt recalled the failure of the MPCA under his predecessor to stop Reserve Mining from dumping its waste rock into Lake Superior.
Merritt grew up in Duluth and spent summers on Isle Royale, where the family still has cottages on a small nearby island, one of just a few places in the National Park where families can continue to use cabins built by their pioneer ancestors. He was drawn into concern about the Reserve mine by an uncle who operated a store near the town of Silver Bay on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The company had a state permit to dump its waste rock into Lake Superior, but Merritt said by 1968 it was dumping 67,000 tons a day into the lake. “That went beyond the permit limits, and the state was doing nothing,” he said. He was practicing law with a Minneapolis firm, and immediately “realized we couldn’t win this battle against Reserve unless we had political muscle,” so he became active in the DFL party in New Hope, working his way up to statewide party positions. He wrote a plank in the party platform in 1970 opposing the lake dumping, and buttonholed gubernatorial candidate Wendell Anderson on the issue. “To his credit he quickly jumped onto that, in spite of opposition from Iron Range legislators,” said Merritt, who went on to advise Anderson on environmental issues during the campaign. Once in office, Anderson urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to renew Reserve’s permit, and testified at a Federal Enforcement Conference on the issue. The new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took Reserve to court, and in a landmark ruling in 1974, Judge Miles Lord shut the plant down. It was quickly reopened and continued to operate during a long appeal process, but ultimately the company was forced to begin disposal on land in 1980.
Shortly after taking office, Anderson appointed Merritt to head the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and Merritt used the post to lobby for passage of MERA. “Republicans introduced an amendment which said you had to prove personal injury,” he recalled, but “that weakened the right of a citizen to bring an action. The way we wanted, you didn’t have to be injured in order to speak out to protect the environment. Kind of like the Lorax,” he said with a grin.
As an attorney, Merritt has used MERA to argue several cases, most recently when he sued several federal agencies to try to prevent a devastating fish disease, viral hemorrhagic septicemia, from entering Lake Superior. Fisheries experts had watched the disease spread westward through the Great Lakes. “We pleaded that it was an imminent likelihood that VHS would come into Lake Superior… we used MERA as well as federal statutes.” Merritt lost that case; Judge James Rosenbaum was not convinced the threat was imminent. But VHS did arrive in Lake Superior in 2010.
Merritt is a lively storyteller who has been at the center of key environmental battles. I’m looking forward to reading his book.
This oral history project was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.