Madeline Skurbic sat ten feet above the frozen ground of northeastern Minnesota. Her eyes were closed. Her face was snuggled into the fleece lining of a blaze orange hunting jacket. Her adolescent body was tucked against the cold bark of a yellow birch, and her rump was firmly planted on frosted plywood that served as the seat in her deer stand. Though she was napping, Maddie wasn’t in danger of falling out of her perch: descent was thwarted by an aspen railing spiked to three birch trees defining the limits of the crude platform Maddie and her father, Herman “Budd” Skurbic, had built. Crisp November air stirred leafless branches, but the forest’s subtle whispers did not wake the girl. Madeline cradled an ancient Winchester 30-30, a rifle that once belonged to her maternal grandfather, Joseph Saari, in her arms. The girl’s hands were covered in the same vibrant orange as the rest of her, the synthetic fabric of her hunting gloves buttressed against penetrating chill by Thinsulate inserts. Maddie’s feet, warm and toasty in a pair of SmartWool socks inside her fleece-lined Sorels, the brown leather uppers sprayed with silicon to resist water, rested on stout aspen logs forming the platform’s floor. Despite the swaying of the trees supporting her deer stand, the girl did not wake. Fragile snowflakes sashayed from an overcast sky and imperceptibly covered the snoring girl in a thin mantle of white.
Before that day, the fifteen-year-old had never carried a rifle in the field. But she was persistent in her pleas to her parents. Maddie had accompanied her dad’s only brother, Oscar Skurbic, a wiry wisp of a man who’d worked the Merritt Pit Mine—an open pit taconite mine located across Birch Lake from Maddie’s deer stand—as an unarmed apprentice on previous hunts. In her fourteenth year, Maddie completed the state-mandated firearms education course, and under the weight of her petitions, Alice (Maddie’s mother) and Budd had given in and allowed their only child to hunt the quarter section of land that defined the Skurbic Farm.
The Farm was a tangle of black alder, overgrown hayfields, second-growth forest, occasional white pines, and modest marshland laced together by Kangas Creek: a trickle of water flowing through the property from Little Lake toward Kangas Lake. Kangas Creek exited its namesake, a eutrophic bowl of black water populated by perch and hammer-handle northern pike, before flowing south into Birch Lake. There was nothing notable about Kangas Creek—no babbling discourse, no falls or rapids, no magnificent drops—just the slow meander of tannin-stained swampy discharge oozing its way through tired land. In reality, the property—known as “The Skurbic Farm” to locals—was actually the ancestral home of Maddie’s mother, Alice Saari Skurbic. The old Finnish farmstead had been cleared and built with sweat and blood by Alice’s grandfather and Maddie’s great grandfather, Juha Saari, during the labor unrest of the early 20th century when many Finns were blacklisted from the iron ore mines and took to subsistence farming to survive.
Throughout the intervening decades defining Ely as a boomtown, Maddie’s maternal grandfather, Joe Saari, maintained both the farm and a three-bedroom bungalow in town on East Camp Street, displaying the chest-puffing self-satisfaction of knowing he’d worked the earth as a miner just as his immigrant father had. When he died, Joe’s Ely home and the ancestral farm were passed down to Alice, his only child.
This was the personal history that surrounded Madeline Skurbic as she dozed in her deer stand, the hood of her jacket pulled tight against November cold, her inky black hair tied in a ponytail and tucked inside an orange watch cap drawn tight against her scalp, her eyes closed, her breathing soft and measured. As Maddie napped, she dreamed not of family history or the immigrant saga of ancestors, but of Calvin Johnson, a shy seventeen-year-old geek who’d asked her to the hunter’s ball. She’d said “yes” despite her girlfriends’ decrying Calvin’s attributes, his lack of athleticism, his quiet, reserved demeanor. An image of Calvin’s gangly arms around her waist, her head resting on his shoulder as they slow danced in the Ely High School gymnasium, their eyes closed, their hearts beating a nervous cadence, occupied Maddie’s mind as she dozed.
An explosion startled the girl. The ground shuddered. The forest shivered. Madeline’s eyes opened. The girl dropped her rifle onto the floor of the deer stand and hugged the trunk of the nearest birch in appreciation that something horrific had occurred.
The Merritt Pit Deposit runs parallel to the south shore of Birch Lake in the extreme northeast corner of St. Louis County, Minnesota. Birch Lake is over 7,000 acres in size, fed by the Kawishiwi River, a river that flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) before joining the Rainy River. The Rainy continues north into Canada before merging with other rivers and emptying into Hudson Bay. Of the known copper/nickel ore beds located on Minnesota’s Mesabi and Vermillion Iron Ranges, pockets of minerals stretching from the Water-Hen Deposit south of Aurora to the Spruce Lake Deposit on the cusp of the BWCA, the Merritt Pit Deposit is one of the more modest concentrations of copper-bearing ore in the region.
Named the “Merritt Pit Deposit” because the ore body’s location was once home to an open pit taconite mine of the same name operated by Denison Mining, the former low-grade iron ore mine was first sold by Denison to Calumet Iron and Copper, and, when Calumet decided to concentrate on richer veins of copper/nickel ore found in the Maturi, Spruce Road, Nokomis, and South Filson Creek deposits, the Merritt Pit site was sold by Calumet to Continental Mining. Prior to acquiring the Merritt Pit property, Continental had never been involved in copper/nickel mining, having been incorporated in Quebec, Canada as the developer and owner of iron ore mines in Canada, Minnesota, Brazil, and Australia. But with copper prices rising, and with the price tag for the Merritt Pit site being reasonable, the powers that be in Quebec City leapt at the chance to become a player in the burgeoning dispute of whether environmentally safe and economically productive copper/nickel mining could be accomplished in northeastern Minnesota: a landscape dotted with swamps, marshes, ponds, and lakes, and crisscrossed by creeks, streams, and rivers.
When Continental Mining of Minnesota, Inc., the American offspring of Continental Mining, International, purchased the Merritt Pit site from Calumet, the property consisted of an abandoned open pit taconite mine, an electrical powerhouse and distribution system, a rail spur, a water treatment plant, several dilapidated buildings, underground fuel oil tanks, and a rusting steel silo once designated for the storage of ANFO, a blasting agent used by the mining industry in lieu of dynamite. Some mixtures of the explosive (which has as its primary component ammonium nitrate prills similar to those used by farmers to fertilize their fields) contain flakes of aluminum to increase brisance: the shattering power of the explosive. ANFO is relatively stable, easy to transport, and inexpensive while packing one-half the explosive punch of military grade C4. The Merritt Pit silo, a cylindrical steel tower standing on four spindly steel legs forty feet above the ground, hadn’t been used in years when Continental Mining acquired the Merritt Pit property. There was minimal documentation of the silo’s history provided by Denison or Calumet to Continental, though a Phase I environmental assessment had disclosed the silo’s prior use. The assessment also noted that underground tanks, vessels used to supply fuel oil to mix with the ammonium nitrate prills to create ANFO, were leaking and that the soil around the tanks, the silo, and adjacent truck scale was contaminated with residual oil and ammonium nitrate. The Phase I report outlined the parameters for safe removal of the underground tanks. Phase II, it was anticipated by the higher ups at Calumet, would detail how to safely remove the silo and the contaminated soil. But Continental bought the Merritt Pit property “as is,” before the Phase II study was completed and without regard to environmental issues or safety concerns. It was a gamble for the Canadian company to waive waiting on the final report, one that would detail the extent of the ammonium nitrate and fuel oil contamination of the property, but a gamble the acquisitions and property division of Continental was willing to take given the accelerating demand for copper on the world market.
A year before Madeline Skurbic’s first deer hunt, Continental Mining, International organized its Minnesota corporation and lured Ted Huberty—the operations manager at a nearby taconite mine—from a lifelong career with Denison Mining to head up Continental’s new Merritt Pit operation. Huberty was provided a generous salary and benefits package as well as great latitude in selecting staff. Huberty’s first hire was Neil Yost, a fifty-five year old high school dropout who’d worked for Carson Mines—a copper mining concern headquartered in Butte, Montana—for over thirty years. Yost had climbed the corporate ladder at Carson, advancing from laborer to safety director over the course of his career. Yost’s wife, Alana—Ted Huberty’s only sibling—longed to return to Minnesota. Alana and Ted had been born and raised in Ely. When Neil Yost got the call from his brother-in-law offering him a job in Minnesota, Yost accepted the position without hesitation. Within three months of Ted Huberty’s telephone call, Neil and Alana Yost were settled into a new home on the east shore of Bear Island Lake just off Highway 21 between the Merritt Pit site and Ely.
One of Neil Yost’s first tasks as safety director for Continental’s Minnesota operation was to inventory the physical assets of the abandoned taconite mine and determine a course of remediation for any environmental or safety concerns he noted. While conducting inspections of the Merritt Pit site, Yost’s eyes were consistently drawn to the rusty, precariously perched silo that loomed as a decadent shadow over the property.
“That,” Neil Yost said, on more than one occasion, pointing to the ANFO storage tower as he inspected the mine’s dilapidated facilities with other employees of Continental’s Safety and Compliance Department, “will be the first thing to go.”
Crisp, early morning air stung Diane “Dee Dee” Hernesman’s lungs as she skied. There was just enough snow on the ground to glide—in classic style—over the Trezona Trail located a short walk from downtown Ely. Hernesman, a trial lawyer officing in a rickety frame building on East Chapman Street that once housed a pharmacy, skied away from a northwest zephyr. The wind propelled snowflakes into Dee Dee’s backside as she moved along the south shore of Miner’s Lake. The lawyer knew that once she reached the eastern-most point of the trail she’d be forced to turn into the squall. Her face would then feel the brunt of the weather, but there was nothing to be done about her impending discomfort.
Dee Dee Hernesman was forty-three years old and an avid fitness enthusiast. In the summer, the lawyer ran from her home located on the outskirts of Ely to her law office where, along with her partners Elliot “Skip” Mattila and Julie Somerfeldt, she shared a remodeled storefront that included offices, a sauna, individual lockers for the attorneys and their staff, and bathrooms complete with showers. On summer days when Dee Dee didn’t run, she biked to work. Rain or shine, she put in her miles. Hernesman’s dogged determination to stay in shape was two-fold.
First, she was between relationships. Dee Dee’s long-time companion, Carol Evans, a woman who’d been born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota, had, after over a decade of living with Dee Dee in Ely, said “enough is enough.” Carol left Dee Dee and the below-zero winters and bug-infested summers that define the little town on the threshold of the BWCA. Hernesman was devastated by her partner’s desertion. With the arrival of same-sex marriage in Minnesota, there had been serious discussions between the women about making their commitment legal. But despite such dialogue, and despite the fact that Carol and Dee Dee had been together for over twenty years, one day, out of the blue, Carol Evans announced very simply that she was moving to Omaha where a new job, and presumably, a new life, awaited her. There was no invitation extended by Carol to Dee Dee asking Dee Dee to relocate to Nebraska, an act of betrayal that left Hernesman feeling empty and hollow. But the distance of a year, a year during which Dee Dee Hernesman undertook an emotional, spiritual, and physical inventory of herself, provided optimism.
The second facet of Dee Dee’s compulsion for fitness was based on Hernesman family history. Both of Dee Dee’s parents had died young. Alice Hernesman, Dee Dee’s mother, passed away at forty-seven while Dee Dee was attending Tower Soudan High School on Minnesota’s Vermillion Iron Range. Alice succumbed to a silent defect in her middle-aged heart just a few years before Dee Dee’s father, Henry, passed away in the slowest and most agonizing of ways. Henry died, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, while his daughter was attending Concordia College in Moorhead.
Simply put, the early deaths of Dee Dee’s parents, coupled with the inexplicable flight of Carol Evans to Nebraska, compelled Hernesman to exercise. She ran and biked during the summer, spring, and fall, and, during the winter, she skied as often as her hectic courtroom schedule allowed.
The lawyer fixed subtle gray eyes on the thin woods surrounding the shallow lake, occasionally diverting her gaze to take in Shagawa’s frozen surface in the background. She knew, from her childhood in nearby Tower—and her years as a partner in the law firm of Mattila, Somerfeldt, and Hernesman—Shagawa’s history: the near century-long abuse of its waters by the residents of Ely and the surrounding iron mines and commercial concerns. Residents had shown a similar disdain toward the river flowing out of Shagawa. Locals had used the lake and river as an open sewer for more than a century. While attempts had been made to correct the destruction of Shagawa such that the municipal beach was now useable and walleye caught in the lake were now edible, much remained to be done to right humanity’s wrongs against Shagawa. As a conservationist, Hernesman applauded recent efforts to reclaim the lake but understood that Shagawa had a long way to go before it could be considered “healthy.” She’d yet to catch and eat a fish from Shagawa while open water fishing. Despite being an Iron Ranger, Hernesman knew from an early age that ice fishing wasn’t for her. Standing around, arms wrapped against the cold, warmed by blackberry brandy or peppermint schnapps, waiting for something to swim by and snatch a baited hook beneath the ice wasn’t her idea of a good time. But Dee Dee loved casting plugs against the departing dusk of a warm summer’s eve, jigging for walleye and perch over rock piles, or trolling for lake trout along submerged reefs on Burntside Lake, a local treasure memorialized by Ely author Sig Olson in his books.
As Dee Dee Hernesman turned into the wind, the snow abated. She moved easily along the north shore of Miner’s Lake, early morning light dawning over the town of Winton to the east. Wisps of warm breath curled in cold air. It was almost eight o’clock when Hernesman arrived at the paved lot where she’d parked her red Ford Escape. An orange sun crested the birch and aspen and pine trees defining the eastern horizon. Dee Dee leaned her ski poles against the Escape, pulled off her mittens, shoved the mittens into the pouch of her pullover, and released her boots from their bindings. The lawyer was stretching her calves when distant, artificial thunder interrupted the melancholy of the morning.
That’s too loud to be blasting, Dee Dee thought as she looked south, toward the noise.
Cook County Sheriff Debra Slater drove her Yukon past city hall. The sun had cleared the tree line east of Ely and was edging toward its winter apex. As Slater’s showroom-new porcelain white SUV, “Cook County Sheriff” stenciled in black across its front doors, crested a hill, she saw the reason she was outside her home county assisting St. Louis County Sheriff Brian Nace as a member of the Copper/Nickel Task Force. Two clusters of citizens, one group carrying signs proclaiming their loyalty to the Sierra Club, Friends of the Boundary Waters, and other environmental organizations, and a second group of citizens holding placards boasting slogans such as “We Can Have Clean Water and Mining!” and “Minnesotans for Copper/Nickel” and “Tree Huggers Go Back to St. Paul” stood on opposite sides of Chapman Street, the din of confrontation audible inside Slater’s squad.
Every other week, Deb Slater made the long drive down US Highway 61 from Grand Marais—the county seat of Cook County where she was the sheriff—turned right on Minnesota Highway 1 at Ilgen City, and followed the two-lane asphalt highway through the desolation of Lake County until she arrived in Ely, where as the Director of the Copper/Nickel Task Force—a group of local law enforcement officers from Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties assembled by Sheriff Nace—Slater spent two days holding briefings, collecting intelligence, and leading investigations into incidents between opposing factions in the debate over non-ferrous mining in northeastern Minnesota. With the opening of the Roosevelt-Taft open-pit copper/nickel mine in nearby Hoyt Lakes and the looming approval of underground mining near Birch Lake, the number of protestors on both sides of the issue was increasing, and the collective rancor of the participants was escalating. Incidents of verbal conflict between opposing ideologues and reports of sit-ins, hints of environmental sabotage, and threats of violence were on the rise.
Deb Slater was on the cusp of fifty and nearing retirement when Sheriff Nace approached her to head up the task force. Brian Nace, the short, burly, thick-chested sheriff of the largest county east of the Mississippi, who, at thirty-seven, was too young to have served with Slater when she was a patrol deputy in the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, sought out Slater’s experience and expertise. Sheriff Nace had cajoled Sheriff Slater into accepting a two-year stint as the director of the task force. Slater would see her commitment through to its culmination and planned to retire at the end of the following year from both her position as Cook County Sheriff and director of the task force.
It’s been a good run, Slater mused as she pulled the big rig into her designated parking space next to Ely City Hall. A shitty two years in terms of my personal life and all, but a solid, well-played career.
The unspoken reference to Deb Slater’s family situation was a not-so-veiled allusion to her husband Rick having recently entered hospice in Duluth in the last stages of mitochondrial disease. It was also an acknowledgement that the couple’s only child, Margaret Ann, was a half a continent away—in upstate New York at Cornell—where she was attending college and playing volleyball. It had been difficult on Slater’s motherly instincts to insist that Annie accept a full ride at an Ivy League school in the face of Rick’s decline, but Deb knew what such a privileged education would mean over the course of her daughter’s lifetime. And Slater knew, as a former athlete herself, what playing an NCAA Division I sport would mean for her child’s self-esteem.
“But Mom, I can play for UMD and be close to Dad,” had been Annie’s refrain during her senior year at Cook County High School where she not only lettered in four sports but managed to graduate number one in her class, a perfect four-point-oh.
While Deb accepted Annie’s loyalty to her father as a given, the sheriff also knew that there was little Annie’s physical presence would mean to the unconscious body lying in the hospice bed at Solvay House in Duluth. There was nothing such sacrifice would change. In the end, Deb prevailed, and the only child of the Slater marriage left home with her mother driving the family Suburban—the SUV’s cargo hold stacked to the ceiling with Annie’s belongings. Mother and daughter drove from Minnesota to New York and, on freshman orientation day, Deb Slater eased the Suburban onto the stately Cornell campus, disgorged Annie and her belongings, helped the girl locate her dormitory and move in, and engaged in an emotional embrace before heading for home.
Sheriff Slater’s personal history occupied her thoughts as she sat in the Yukon, the ignition key off, the engine cooling, the tempers of the opposing clusters of protestors rising. Ely police and St. Louis County deputies were stationed near each group, the officers’ winter coats buttoned up against the chill, their eyes fixed on the milling citizenry. Apprehension of more violent protest was in the air. An announcement was expected from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota DNR, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers approving the necessary permits for the Merritt Pit underground copper/nickel project. It was expected the governor, a conservative Republican, would sign off on the project once the agencies had given the Merritt Pit Mine their collective blessing. Lawsuits brought by conservation groups to stop the mine had been dismissed. Subsequent appeals had failed. Lobbying by environmentalists before the staunchly conservative Minnesota Legislature, the Democrats having been trounced in the last election, fell on deaf ears. Governor Wesley Whitcomb, the state’s most conservative leader since Tim Pawlenty, had made reinvigoration of the mining industry in northeastern Minnesota a priority. Whitcomb’s campaign promises had helped him wrest control of the state from the liberals. It had been decades since a Republican gubernatorial candidate won the votes of Iron Rangers. Wesley Whitcomb had accomplished that Herculean task and was about to repay that loyalty with well-paying mining jobs.
Winter seeped into the Yukon. Slater remained as still as a statue, her gloved hands grasping the steering wheel, her eyes closed in contemplation of what she had lost and was about to lose. She was deep in self-assessment when the wail of sirens and the crackle of a police band radio disrupted her meditative state.
“Calling all units. There’s been an explosion at Continental Mining off the New Tomahawk Road near Birch Lake. Multiple casualties reported. Respond with lights and sirens. Advise when you’re en route.”
To the untrained ear, the dispatcher’s voice seemed calm and collected. But Sheriff Debra Slater noted a catch, a pause, an inflection in the woman’s voice that revealed something unexpected and deadly had happened.
I hope to Christ it’s not another environmental group trying to send a message, Slater thought as she turned the ignition key, slipped the Yukon into reverse, and backed onto Chapman Street.
CHAPTER FIVE: A MONTH EARLIER
Steven Gruber walked alongside Neil Yost. The men were assessing the work that Hibbing Salvage and Remediation was expected to complete at the Merritt Pit site. The inspection had taken place on a blazing, beautiful autumn afternoon in October. The auriferous leaves of the forest surrounding the old mine fluttered. Sunlight exposed a pockmarked landscape. The day was unseasonably warm. Gruber towered over Yost, Gruber’s Germanic face closed to expression, his blond hair disrupted by wind, his bright blue eyes scrutinizing the scene as Yost, the safety director of Continental Mining, described his expectations.
“You’ll need to dig up the fuel oil tanks, cut them apart, haul them away, and have the contaminated soil either trucked off site to an earth burner or burn it yourself on-site,” Yost had explained as the men stopped next to a fueling station. “That’s priority number one. Needs to happen sooner than later. We’re about to receive Army Corps, DNR, and MPCA approval for the mine, and we need to be able to show those agencies we’re responsible stewards of the land,” Yost added.
Gruber pondered the task. “Won’t be a problem. I’ve got two welders who can handle it,” he said, thinking aloud. “Feggetti here is as good as they come,” Gruber advised, gesturing to a short, black-haired, brown-eyed young man standing behind Gruber and Yost. “Feggetti and Susie Lindahl. Susie’s not only great with a torch; she’s the best operator around. She can spin a backhoe on a dime with one hand on the controls while drinking coffee and not spill a drop,” Gruber added with a grin. “We’ll dig around the tanks, loop chains around ‘em, and use a rubber-tired crane to lift ‘em out of the ground. Once the tanks are removed, we’ll wash ‘em out, catch the flush in a basin, separate the water and the oil, recycle the oil and treat the water, before cutting the tanks apart with water-cooled saws. That way, we eliminate any chance of fire or explosion. Fuel oil can be nasty stuff if you’re not careful, right Feggetti?”
Antonio Feggetti had looked at his boss with cloudy eyes, his twenty-something face unremarkable and expressionless. Feggetti nodded but maintained silence. The young welder stood a foot shorter than his boss but was appreciably thicker, built like a stump, his thighs and biceps hardened by days of wrestling salvaged iron.
“Doesn’t say much,” Yost observed as the trio began moving away from the fueling station.
“Doesn’t have to,” Gruber explained. “He says all he needs to say with his torch.”
“You’re gonna put a girl to work with Mr. No-Talkie here?” Neil Yost continued speaking as the group moved toward an abandoned cement block building and rusty steel silo located at the end of a rail spur. “Don’t know that I much like the idea of a girl working salvage, getting her pretty hands dirty.”
Gruber frowned. Susie Lindahl was his niece, his sister Judy’s only child. When Susie straightened up after repeated bouts of heroin use, coming back to the family with two young daughters conceived from engaging in bad behavior with two different men—men who were nowhere to be found in terms of parental responsibility—Steve had paid Susie’s way through the welding program at Mesabi Community College in Virginia, seen to it that the girl had an apprenticeship through the union, and taken her on as his number two burner. Steve Gruber also taught his niece to operate heavy equipment, an aspect of the job Susie took to like a Labrador to cold water. She was only twenty-five, but the girl had lived a hard life and survived the worst of what the world could throw at her. Despite a recent relapse, when she smoked some weed (but declined the heroin a local dirt bag offered her as a pretext to bedding her on a sofa in a room full of people), and lost temporary custody of her girls, Susie was on the right track. She’d get Angel, her youngest, back from Judy and Mark—her parents—and three-year-old Brenda Lee back from Nancy and Tom Devich—Brenda Lee’s paternal grandparents—at the end of the child protection case filed by St. Louis County social services and monitored by Judge Aronson in Virginia, Minnesota. Steve Gruber ruminated over his niece’s history as he considered how to respond to Yost. But rather than correct the man, Gruber had simply changed the subject.
They were standing next to the block building, a thirty-foot by sixteen-foot structure with a faded green metal roof, broken windows, and a trashed interior. The building was missing its doors. “What was this used for?” Gruber had asked as the men stepped over the building’s threshold into shadow.
“That there was the dispatcher’s office,” Yost said, pointing to one of the three spaces within the structure, each room separated by a block wall, all the trim and flooring and furniture, including the plumbing and fixtures of the solitary restroom, either removed or destroyed or tossed outside. “That was the privy. And this,” Yost said, moving through an open doorway into a space warmed by sunlight filtering through a bank of glassless windows, “was the blasting foreman’s office.”
Feggetti’s question caught Steve Gruber by surprise. It wasn’t often that Feggetti spoke up in the company of strangers. Whatever caused the man to open his mouth was likely significant.
But Neil Yost ignored Feggetti’s question as the men exited the building. “What are your plans for the building?” Yost asked. “How will you take ‘er down?”
Gruber studied the structure. “Backhoe will make short work of it. There’s no value here. You’ll pay straight time for demolition and disposal. Doesn’t appear to be anything we can salvage so we’ll simply tear it down, load the debris in a truck, and place it in the landfill.”
Yost nodded and smiled. “Nothin’ is free, is it?”
“You never answered Feggetti’s question,” Gruber noted.
Yost grunted and pointed at the silo.
“Before we bought the place, the prior owners used that to store nitrate: fertilizer. Pulled raw product in here by train, full cars of it, and used that,” Yost said, pointing to a screw-type conveyor lying on the ground next to the building, “to fill the silo with prills. Hoses transferred oil from the underground fuel oil tanks into the tower. Sometimes Denison added aluminum flakes as well. Had to do that by hand. Whenever they were getting ready to blast, they’d pull a truck under the silo, open the spout, and load the truck with fertilizer.” The safety manager took a deep breath. “Once the truck was full, they’d cover the load with a tarp and use it as needed. When it came time to blast, they’d hand pack the nitrate into plastic sleeves, set the sleeves in blast holes, add detonators, and let ‘er rip. Hell of a tidy way to free up taconite!”
Gruber had stared hard at the silo. “We’re planning on using acetylene and oxygen torches to cut the legs off the silo, lower it to the ground, and slice it into pieces. We’re gonna start at the top and end at that cone on the bottom. Might have to re-think using torches if explosives were stored in that thing.”
Yost shook his head. “No need to worry. It’s been at least two years since product was run through ‘er. What’s left behind is inert. Besides, there are open hatches at both ends. Rain has washed ‘er clean. She’s as empty,” the safety manager had said, picking up a piece of rusted re-bar, walking to the silver tower, climbing a steel ladder affixed to the tower’s side, and banging the silo with the re-bar, “as my billfold before payday.”
Bong. Bong. Bong.
The tower had sounded empty.
“You sure torches are okay around this stuff?” Steve Gruber asked dubiously. “You sure whatever’s left inside is safe around a flame?”
“Look,” Yost explained as he climbed down the ladder, “you encounter anything inside the tower while you’re cutting, just scoop it out and put it in that old drum.” As he reclaimed the ground, Yost tossed the re-bar aside, and pointed to a rusting oil barrel, the lid of the container askew. “Dispose of any product you find later. Same for the water in the pit below the scale. Just pump it out and haul it away. Ditto for anything you find in that auger,” Yost concluded, pointing to a fifty-foot section of rusted steel barely visible in a cluster of dried goldenrod.