A man who spent his life working to protect the lakes and land of Minnesota could understandably chose a relaxing retirement. Instead, Grant Merritt wrote a memoir, which describes the lows and highs of his many battles, recalls a pivotal period in Minnesota history, and reminds us why we must continue to fight to protect nature.
Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota’s Environment is engaging, funny in spots, frustrating at times, and ultimately inspiring.
Grant Merritt is a Duluth-born lawyer and was the director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in the early 1970s, a time of progressive action from both sides of the aisle at the Capitol, a time when Gov. Wendell Anderson landed on the cover of Time for a story touting “The Good Life in Minnesota.”
Merritt is widely regarded as a champion of public advocacy in environmental protection in Minnesota. He became active in DFL politics with the specific goal of stopping Reserve Mining’s dumping of waste rock into Lake Superior. As head of the MPCA, he reported to a policy-making board of citizens whose role was to hold the agency to high standards of openness and advocacy. And he represented many non-profit groups and individuals in court to challenge harmful practices. Some of his fellows nick-named him “The Lorax,” after the Dr. Seuss character who “speaks for the trees,” and when he left the MPCA his staff presented him with a plaque engraved with scenes from the popular book.
Merritt enthusiastically embraces the need for citizen action. In the book he quotes Abraham Lincoln from a debate with Stephen Douglas: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Merritt follows Lincoln’s dictum with the observation that, “In order to make that possible, it is crucial to let the public know what is going on.” Merritt himself was a highly successful publicist, accessible to and frequently quoted by reporters. He said he learned early in his political career to “speak in headlines,” and he was not shy about using the media to promote his views.
The core of the book is the twelve-year legal battle to stop Reserve’s pollution. Merritt played key roles in that epic fight, from start to finish. He was alerted to the issue by his uncle, Milton Mattson, who operated a store in East Beaver Bay and who was a tireless and courageous opponent of the pollution. Even after Merritt quit the MPCA, he continued to monitor and push for on-land disposal at an appropriate site.
He begins the book by recounting the storied role his family played in Minnesota history. His grandfather and great-uncles were pioneers in extracting the rich ore of Minnesota’s Iron Range: they opened a huge mine at Mt. Iron, near the present location of Virginia, and built a 75-mile railroad to deliver the ore to Lake Superior ports. Merritt describes a historic moment in October 1892, when “the first train of iron ore from the Mesabi Range, powered by a steam locomotive pulling ten cars each filled with 20 tons, moved to the Allouez dock in Superior.” Unfortunately, a combination of breached contracts by a key partner, dishonest lawyers, and a nationwide economic collapse pushed the Merritts to merge their company with John D. Rockefeller’s mining operations. As Merritt relates, it didn’t take long for the East Coast oil-and-railroad magnate to defraud the family of its Iron Range assets. He expresses anger that some historians have told this story “wrong” by attributing Rockefeller’s victory to his “financial genius.” But Merritt the lawyer found a key lesson in this painful family story in the lawsuit his grandfather brought against Rockefeller. Documents proved that the assets Rockefeller brought to the merger were worthless, showing he was pursuing the merger in bad faith. But those documents were not submitted to the court, and the Merritts were forced to settle for far less than their company was worth.
Eighty years later, Merritt himself was to experience similar obfuscation during the Reserve litigation, when the company repeatedly claimed it was impossible to dispose of the waste rock on land. At last a subpoena revealed that Reserve had thoroughly studied on-land disposal but rejected it as too expensive.
His memoir tells important stories in a personal way, with vivid memories and sometimes still-raw feelings. In general it provides enough background to enable readers unfamiliar with these stories to follow and appreciate their significance. In some instances, however, this reader wished for more detail, as in the section on Isle Royale, where Merritt’s grandfather and great-uncle – before exploring for iron – made deliveries of rock, lumber, and fish kegs in a sailboat. The family vacationed on the island for years, and in the 1920s advocated for its establishment as a national park. When that happened, residents and landowners were given the choice of selling or taking life leases. The Merritt family was one of about twenty-five that chose to keep a life lease. In the years since, relations between the National Park staff and the residents have not always been smooth. Merritt and others have fought to keep their cabins as a way of keeping the history of the place alive: “Isle Royale National Park needs the presence of these original families as long as possible in order to keep the history of this magnificent place accurate and available to the visiting public.” He describes several “unforgettable characters,” and those brief sketches whetted my appetite for more detail on this interesting history.
Similarly, he describes in a single paragraph an accident at the nuclear power plant at Monticello. Since I had not heard of this incident, I would have liked to learn more.
In a chapter focusing on his experiences as a citizen activist, Merritt discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the environmental movement today. He laments what he sees as the increasing tendency of the courts to treat government agencies with excessive deference, dismissing cases “so that they never reach the trial stage where judges and juries can hear live witnesses and base their decisions on evidence.” He says this attitude contributed to his loss of a case in 2007, when he represented several groups trying to force several federal agencies to enforce rules designed to protect Lake Superior from invasive species. At the time, viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), a deadly fish disease, was working its way up the Great Lakes toward Lake Superior. As Merritt tells it, Judge James Rosenbaum wrongly dismissed the case because the plaintiffs failed to allege imminent harm. But that was exactly what the groups were trying to show, and they were proven right when VHS arrived in Lake Superior shortly after the ruling. Merritt says many judges resist submitting government agencies’ actions (or lack of action) to citizen challenge. He acknowledges that administrative agencies usually have more expertise than judges on specific subjects. “But what if the case is not based on an agency’s special knowledge but instead on its reluctance to enforce its own rules? That can happen either because of fear of the interests who might have to spend money to comply or because the agency has buckled to the pressure of special interests—which happens more than one would like to believe.”
When that happens, Merritt says, it’s essential for the public to challenge their government. He has always championed the concept of citizen power. When he headed the MPCA, he essentially reported to the Citizens’ Board which made the ultimate decisions. Not only does this approach promote responsiveness and ensure inclusion of multiple viewpoints, it gives the public direct access to fellow citizens who make the decisions. Merritt saw it as a step backward when Governor Arne Carlson demoted the board to advisory status in the mid-1990s, assigning decision-making authority to the Commissioner, and as a huge loss when the legislature abolished it in 2015.
Merritt credits environmental laws passed around the country in the 1970s for much progress in abating pollution. The National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, and the many “Little NEPAs” enacted by states in those years, require government to take what he calls the “look before you leap” approach to development. Merritt says if that approach had been adopted earlier, we could have avoided not only Reserve’s deposits of millions of tons of waste rock in Lake Superior, but also many other problems including how to dispose of radioactive fuel rods from nuclear power plants.
He advocates for the precautionary principle, saying, “[A]n alert citizenry should not wait until definitive evidence is available to act in abating pollution.” In the Reserve Mining case, there was ample evidence that commercial fishermen were catching fewer fish, and that green water was flowing from Silver Bay toward Duluth and Wisconsin, indicating the waste rock was not sinking into a “great trough” as promised by the mining company. Only later and because of citizen action did we learn about the potential public health threat from the “asbestos-like fibers” in the waste stream. Merritt says it’s the same now with the threat posed by climate change. We don’t need to wait for more proof that humans are causing it; there’s plenty of evidence already.
This review offers just a few highlights from the book, in which Merritt recounts many other stories of complex environmental issues, many of which we still confront today. Iron and Water is the absorbing and genial story of a champion of Minnesota’s natural resources; let’s hope it inspires a new generation to appreciate the work that’s been done, and to take on the work that remains to protect our treasures of land and water.
Thanks to Thomas Spence for the use of his beautiful image of Lake Superior. To see more of his work, visit his website.