The First Earth Day

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The fifteen separate articles in the April 22, 1970, Minneapolis Star covered the many issues of cleaning up the environment that people were talking about in Minnesota.
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Learn more about the first Earth Day and how people in Minnesota played a vital role in the environmental issues occuring at the time.

In Iron and Water (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) by Grant J. Merritt, find out about the environmental efforts he put forth in Minnesota during his lifetime. Merritt shares his story and includes the efforts, roles and stories of the entire Merritt family including a coal miner and another Merritt, who protected Lake Superior from mining damage. This excerpt can be located in chapter 2, “Environmentalism and the Reserve Mining Controversy.” 

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, a number of gatherings occurred around Minnesota to celebrate the urgent need to restore and protect the environment. I was asked to address the student rally outside the entrance to Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, facing the magnificent mall extending to Northrop Auditorium. Over a thousand students and others were present. They heard me stir up action to stop Reserve Mining’s pollution of Lake Superior. I urged them to join the growing supporters of on-land disposal required of all other taconite companies in Minnesota. Lake Superior was too precious a treasure to allow the dumping to continue. It was a beautiful early spring day and spirits were high.

Later in the afternoon I drove to River Falls, Wisconsin, to speak at the branch of the University of Wisconsin located there. My friend Charles Carson, professor of geology, had invited me. On the way I stopped for dinner at the Steamboat Inn on the St. Croix River, near the Mississippi River, and while eating read the Minneapolis Star newspaper. It had fifteen articles on pollution and the environment. Later at the campus I used the bottle of taconite tailings as a prop during my speech.

I did not mince any words that night in River Falls, saying, “Polluting industrialists are attempting to control our regulatory agencies and suppressing government reports. They are experts in foot dragging and hedging.” I referred to the Stoddard Report, which stated that the Reserve tailings causing the green water observed far from the plant were killing the food fish feed upon, causing a public nuisance and violating federal regulations. Reserve Mining had suppressed the federal report for several weeks. By the time the press had finally published it, Reserve had had time to prepare a defense. I explained how the company had dumped two hundred million tons of tailings into Lake Superior through their two “launder chutes” since dumping began in 1956. “Lake Superior is going to hell on two chutes as a result of this dumping,” I told the audience of college students. I argued that “the burden of proof for disposal must be changed from ‘prove we are polluting’ to ‘prove you are not polluting.”

It was very encouraging to see the spontaneous turnouts at these two campus gatherings and the enthusiasm of students about the environment. It was clear to me that the environmental movement was growing. The fifteen separate articles in the April 22, 1970, Minneapolis Star covered the many issues of cleaning up the environment that people were talking about in Minnesota. When I went around giving speeches, questions concerning burning dumps, nuclear power plants, dirty smokestacks, and litter were often raised.

Sometime around Earth Day, I was also asked to make a speech at Coffman Union, this time inside. I recall giving my usual talk on the Reserve Mining pollution case, emphasizing how the fine fraction of tailings was going out in the lake in suspension and solution. A member of the audience pressed me on what I knew about those two scientific occurrences. I did my best to explain them from my nonscientific background, but this person seemed somewhat unconvinced. I met him afterward. He introduced himself as Ronald Hays, a mining engineer with a doctorate.

Two and a half years later this same Ron Hays wrote letters to then Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich on the Reserve pollution issue and those letters came to my attention. We subsequently hired Hays as a consultant for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on the case, which was a good move.

Also on Earth Day, U.S. Senator Walter F. Mondale, a good friend of the founder of Earth Day, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, spoke in Duluth at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). One of Mondale’s aides, Michael Berman, who grew up in Duluth and attended Duluth East High School and UMD, told Mondale that he could not give a speech there without addressing the Reserve Mining issue. Fritz Mondale took Berman’s advice and said that Lake Superior was a priceless resource that deserved high protection, and that the state and federal governments should see that the permits issued to Reserve were enforced. We took what Mondale said as tantamount to supporting on-land disposal of the tailings now going directly into Lake Superior. After all, there was no other way to meet the permit condition restricting the tailings to a nine-mile zone outside Silver Bay.  

A key result of all the student enthusiasm exhibited on this first Earth Day was that many students became active in organizations such as the Minnesota Environmental Control Citizens Association and the Save Lake Superior Association. Some of them became activists with Students for Environmental Defense and other groups working to stop pollution. I have a picture of the crowd outside Coffman Union that typifies the interest on that first Earth Day. I was proud to have been a part of Minnesota recognizing that prompt environmental action was needed.

From Iron and Water: My Life Protecting Minnesota’s Environment by Grant J. Merritt (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). Copyright 2018 by Grant J. Merritt. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.



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