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Congress has generally geared its national environmental policy to allowing polluting industries a reasonable period of time to make adjustments in their efforts to conform to federal standards. In the absence of an imminent hazard to health or welfare, any other program for abatement of pollution would be inherently unreasonable and invite great economic and social disruption. Some pollution and ensuing environmental damage are, unfortunately, an inevitable concomitant of a heavily industrialized economy. In the absence of proof of a reasonable risk of imminent or actual harm, a legal standard requiring immediate cessation of industrial operations will cause unnecessary economic loss, including unemployment, and, in a case such as this, jeopardize a continuing domestic source of critical metals without conferring adequate countervailing benefits.
Appellees, the United States, the States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and several environmental groups, sought an injunction ordering appellant Reserve Mining Company to cease discharging wastes from its taconite processing plant into ambient air and lake waters. After finding that the discharges were dangerous to public health, the district court granted the requested relief and ordered that the discharges immediately cease, effectively closing appellant's plant. Appellant challenged the decision.
The court affirmed the district court's findings that appellant mining company's discharges violated federal and state laws and that they gave rise to a potential threat to public health. According to the court, the risk to public health was of sufficient gravity to be legally cognizable and calls for an abatement order on reasonable terms. However, the court modified the injunction to allow appellant to continue to operate its plant because there was no evidence that the danger to health was imminent. No reason existed which required that appellant terminate its operations at once. The court held that appellant was entitled to a reasonable opportunity and a reasonable time period to convert its taconite operations to on-land disposal of taconite tailings and to restrict air emissions at its plant, or to close its existing taconite-pelletizing operations.