When the levee breaks

The Hawkins Mine Washing Plant near Nashwauk in 1912. (PHOTO: Industrial Landscapes)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

In 1913, Swan Lake turned bright red.

This large lake in eastern Itasca County, popular then and now as a Northern Minnesota getaway, became a pool of blood. It was as disturbing to residents and destructive to wildlife as you can imagine.

The tale began ten years earlier when Nashwauk became the first incorporated town on the western Mesabi Iron Range.  Mines sprang up across the region amid the meteoric rise of mining camps like Hibbing and Mountain Iron. Itasca County ores weren’t as pure but they were highly suitable for new technology that concentrated lower grade iron.

This new tech was a boon for Mesabi mining companies. However, the process produced more waste, called tailings, than traditional red ore mines. The solution at the time was decidedly simple. Itasca County was full of lakes. Perfect places to dump tailings.

In Nashwauk, the Wisconsin Steel Company operated the Hawkins Mine. You can still see the Hawkins Mine Overlook on the southwestern edge of the city today. They decided to build a concentrator plant on O’Brien Lake. They had considered Swan, but knew that there were plenty of wealthy landowners there who might object. So they bought up all the land around O’Brien to begin producing iron and dumping tailings. No one complained.

Until the summer of 1913.

As water rises it flows out of its watershed. So when O’Brien Lake filled with tailings, they began to flow into Little O’Brien Lake. As that lake saturated the tailings continued south. To Swan Lake.

One day, and it happened that fast, residents awoke to a Swan Lake that resembled tomato soup. John Munter, a pub owner who lived in Hibbing and owned a cabin on Swan, was disgusted. He enlisted a high profile lawyer — Hibbing’s village president Victor Power, another Swan Lake cabin owner — to file suit against Wisconsin Steel.

The suit sprawled over several years. Several pitfalls emerged. Without color photographs it was hard to prove to a Duluth judge that the lake really turned red. The mining company took a sample from another part of the lake that looked pretty clear to contradict Munter’s much murkier sample from near his property.

After years of litigation the case was dismissed, but not without effect. Wisconsin Steel, forced to spend a lot of money defending itself, didn’t want to repeat the incident. The company built the first tailings basin on the Mesabi Range. This manufactured reservoir would contain the tailings, rather then let them flow into lakes and rivers. This became standard technology in modern mining and dramatically improved the badly damaged water quality of the region.

This story is detailed in the excellent 2017 dissertation, “A Landscape of Water and Waste: Heritage Legacies and Environmental Change in the Mesabi Iron Range,” by Dr. John Baeten of Michigan Tech University. I’ve highlighted Baeten’s work in this column before and will again. He’s got a knack for understanding the realities — good and bad — of mining landscapes.

That’s important, because this isn’t ancient history. Tailings basins aren’t old news; they’re today’s news.

In Brumadinho, Brazil, 186 people miners lost their lives after an earthen dam in a tailings basin liquified and collapsed in January, sending a wall of sludge into the processing plant owned by mining giant Vale. Another 122 people are still missing.

It’s a stunning tragedy. Imagine losing a whole shift of workers — 300 friends and family members — at one of the Iron Range’s biggest taconite plants. This incident has rightly raised a lot of questions about the safety of tailings basins.

In Brazil, Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman and other top officials have temporarily stepped down over the incident, which early reports indicate could have been prevented. Eight other mining officials were arrested. The nation now undergoes a massive review of its mining safety laws after two massive tailings dam failures since 2015. Brazil’s rapidly expanding iron ore mining industry faces enormous uncertainty.

(An aside: this is driving up prices for iron ore around the world, a macabre boon to our local mines).

As we’ve established, tailings basins here on the Mesabi were built slowly and deliberately over a century. No, they’re not invincible, but they’re also not asked to withstand Amazonian rains or hold back nearly as much water as the Brazilian mine. 

Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves, a native of Brazil, was particularly dismissive of Vale’s faulty engineering processes. He argues Cliffs’ mines use much safer practices, which it redoubled after Vale’s first disaster four years ago.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore what’s happening, though. Baeten, in another more recent blog post, discusses the tailings basin at the former LTV/Erie mine, the proposed site of the controversial PolyMet nonferrous mine. He documents the growth of the tailings basin dams there over several decades, revealing one area that appears weaker than the rest.

“I believe that industrial heritage, through the recognition process, has the potential to meaningfully address contemporary concerns related to the relationship between industrial decline and environmental degradation in ways that other fields have yet to approach,” writes Baeten.

In other words, we can learn from the past and apply those lessons to the future of industry. Let’s do so now, protecting human life and the environment before sacrificing either.

We must learn from failure — our own, and that of others. To do so isn’t anti-mining. Responsible mining companies would simply call it the right thing to do. A responsible society would require as much through strong, clear regulatory oversight.

A good argument holds water. A bad one spills over.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 17, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Joe musich says

    The question still on the table is the one about the need….

  2. Joe musich says
  3. When the levee breaks, momma you got to write…oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah!

    Another great article Aaron.

  4. The “Northeast Sector” was the last one used by LTV when they shut down in 2001. It is much lower than the adjoining northwest cell. Much of it is still bordered by natural terrain.

  5. I’ve heard that Red Lake south of Calumet, MN is named that due to levee break as well.

  6. Trout Lake, south of Coleraine, has a fairly large tailings delta from early operations of the Trout Lake plant.

    How fortunate we are that, other than looking bad and the problems associated with silt, natural iron ore tailings are for the most part very benign. They don’t have significant amounts of sulfur, heavy metals, or other bad actors.

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