HIBBING — Vicki Zaitz knows when Hibbing Taconite isn’t pumping water into Snowshoe and Kelly lakes.
On her morning walk around Kelly Lake in Hibbing, she tosses leaves into the water near a culvert where Snowshoe empties into Kelly. If the leaves don’t move, then she knows the water has been turned off.
Sitting at the foot of the sprawling Hibbing Taconite operation, the lakes can’t naturally refill themselves anymore — there’s not enough watershed left. Decades of mining has left behind just 32% of the pre-mining watershed. Since mining began in the watershed in 1912, the watershed has shrunk from 3,944 to 1,248 acres.
To supplement the lack of natural water flow, Hibbing Taconite does pump water from its Carmi-Carson mine pit into Snowshoe and Kelly lakes, but it’s a “discretionary and voluntary practice,” according to a ArcelorMittal spokesperson. ArcelorMittal now manages Hibbing Taconite and owns the largest stake in the mine.
At any time, Hibbing Taconite can redirect water from the pit for use in its taconite processing facility.
Most recently, ArcelorMittal decided to “temporarily cease all pumping into Kelly Lake due to low water levels within its pit” on Aug. 20, its spokesperson said, noting the “abnormally dry conditions” across the region.
But without that supplemental flow of water, Zaitz and her neighbors notice the stagnant water deteriorates their lake.
For the Hibbing neighborhood of Kelly Lake, its namesake lake is its center, but this year, fewer people have visited the public beach on its western shore, Zaitz said.
A fish kill hit the lake this spring, and weeds have started to take over the lake’s shorelines over the past several years.
“A couple of people were jokingly calling it 'Smelly Lake' this spring,” said Zaitz, who lives on Kelly Lake. “It smelled so bad.”
For years, Zaitz and neighbors Charles and Wanda Belich, who also live on Kelly Lake, have led a coalition of neighbors and former residents in urging Hibbing Taconite to turn the water pump back on whenever it’s off and to promise to keep the water permanently flowing when the plant closes, which could be as soon as 2025.
Updates from their correspondence with Hibbing Taconite, the DNR and elected officials is posted to their “Kelly Lake 'Lakers' MN” Facebook group where neighbors warn each other about the neighborhood bear, post pictures of lost pets and organize their efforts to preserve its lake.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit community,” Zaitz said, adding that people used to say, “Don’t mess with the Kelly Lakers.”
Mining altered watershed, lakes
Mining within the lakes’ watershed began with the Morton Pit in 1912 and the Warren Pit in 1917, but the increased “severing” of the watershed occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s with mining in the Mahoning Group 2, 3, and 4; Carmi; Kerr; Harold; Cyprus and Hull-Rust mine pits, according to a 2012 email from Michael Crotteau, a DNR mining hydrologist at the time, to Steve Ruakar, then a St. Louis County commissioner.
Natural, pre-mining watershed runoff would supply the lakes with about 1,730 gallons per minute; However, with more than two-thirds of the watershed lost to mining, the current natural watershed runoff sits at just 548 gallons per minute, Erika Herr, a DNR mining hydrologist, said in a July email to former Kelly Lake resident Gary Groshel.
When it’s pumping water, Hibbing Taconite usually supplies the lakes with 1,000 gallons per minute. Additionally, the city of Hibbing supplies Kelly Lake with 250 gallons per minute from a well during ”snow-free months,” Crotteau wrote, adding that the well “has little effect on lake levels, especially during the hot summer months when evapotranspiration is at a maximum.”
Hibbing Taconite’s discharge needs to travel through Snowshoe Lake first before reaching Kelly Lake, but Herr wrote that beaver dams are slowing discharge, and Crotteau wrote that “Snowshoe Lake acts as an effective retention basin when lake levels are low, meaning that very little flow or no flow reaches downstream Kelly Lake.”
The flow can even reverse directions.
“I have observe(d) a flow reversal from time to time through the culvert entering Kelly Lake in which water leaves Kelly to enter Snowshoe,” Crotteau wrote.
Zaitz lived on Snowshoe Lake beginning in 2006 until the weeds overtook her shoreline. Earlier this year, she moved down the street to a house on Kelly Lake.
“Snowshoe Lake was wide open, there was water through here, there were no cattails, you could see the entire lake,” Zaitz said. “Now, it's getting all overgrown. The less water we have, the more weeds come in.”
Now she wants to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to Kelly Lake.
An ongoing battle
For longtime and former residents of Kelly Lake, which was once in the Township of Stuntz before it was annexed by Hibbing, fighting to keep the water flowing into Snowshoe and Kelly lakes has been a decadeslong battle with the mine.
“As a child in the early '80s, we could not swim in the lake because it had become stagnant,” said Groshel, who now lives in the Twin Cities. “I remember my mother and others fighting the city and mines to get them to pump water into the lake, and once again we had a fishable lake and swimmable beach in town, just like it was when mom was growing up.”
Earlier yet, mining companies had supplied water to the lakes for 25 years but removed the pumps in 1969 when production stopped. Stuntz sued the companies, settling for money meant to drill wells that would supply the lake. Two test wells didn’t find water, but an abandoned well once used by the Great Northern Railway to water steam locomotives was located nearby and used to supply the lake.
Like Zaitz and the Beliches today, the 1970s had a coalition of neighbors led by Joe Terzich, a local grocer and township supervisor, and Dale Lahti, the local postmaster, who urged town officials and mining companies to keep water flowing into the lakes.
They even got the ear of then-Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich, who was born near Kelly Lake.
In a 1974 article in the Minneapolis Tribune about the decreasing quality of Kelly Lake, Perpich said the condition of the lake “might require some legislative action … we can't let that lake go.”
That legislation never materialized, and residents continue to say a permanent solution is overdue as the operation of Hibbing Taconite beyond 2025 is not guaranteed.
2025 and beyond
Hibbing Taconite is running out of quality iron ore. Without bringing in ore from nearby land, the plant could close by 2025, Cleveland-Cliffs, which owns 23% of the facility and managed the property until mid-August, has long said. ArcelorMittal owns 62% of Hibbing Taconite, while U.S. Steel has 15%.
Residents of Kelly Lake fear that if the plant closes, the pump supplying its lakes with water would be shut off permanently.
Cliffs has ore in Nashwauk at the Essar Steel/Mesabi Metallics project, but cannot mine there because Mesabi Metallics also has leases there, creating a complicated quilt of ownership.
“That ore was earmarked to support Hibbing Taconite, but that would be under Cleveland-Cliffs operating the plant. Now you need to discuss that with ArcelorMittal,” Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves told reporters at an August event in Silver Bay.
ArcelorMittal did not directly respond to the News Tribune’s questions about the mine’s future beyond 2025.
Jess Richards, an assistant commissioner of the DNR, said in a July email to the News Tribune that the agency is working to extend the mine life beyond 2025.
“I want to stress that the DNR is actively engaged in conversations about the long-term future of Hibbing Taconite,” Richards said. “While securing a path forward to extend the life of the mine is largely dependent on private entities, it is our hope that solution can be found soon to prevent closure of the facility.”
Reclamation plans for a possible closure of Hibbing Taconite include Kelly Lake, Richards said, but he did not provide specifics.
“DNR is also working closely with Hibbing Taconite on reclamation plans for the Kelly Lake watershed. These plans would be implemented whenever closure were to occur,” Richards said.
Separately, an ArcelorMittal spokesperson echoed Richards.
“Any long-term plans or impact to the water flow to Kelly Lake will be determined by Hibbing Taconite’s future mine plan in conjunction with the MDNR,” the spokesperson said. “Mining at Hibbing Taconite is conducted on multiple mineral leases with different expiration dates, and these leases are routinely renegotiated and renewed.”
Those assurances are not good enough for Zaitz and other Kelly Lake residents who maintain that Hibbing Taconite should supply the lakes with a constant flow of water while it’s open and continue to supply water beyond its mine life.
“We want the (lake's) future (preserved for) my grandkids,” Zaitz said. “And obviously, if we don't do something now, that's not gonna happen.”