If the underlying topic were not so grim, there would have been something sadly comic about the Stations of the Cross undertaken by Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach’s this past month.
Mandernach has been rightly pilloried in public meetings and legistlative hearings for her decision to withhold for one whole year the names of 35 Iron Range miners afflicted with mesothelioma, the always fatal form of cancer whose only known cause is exposure to asbestos. The uproar was fueled by revelations that she had, on the other hand, thoughtfully disclosed the information to mining officials on the Range. She now claims that she intended all along to make the information public, but given the current distrust of Republican appointees running government agencies charged with protecting the public interest, her claims have been met with understandable derision.
But before we decide that getting rid of Mandernach will set everything right, we need to review a little recent history. Whether hers was a full-fledged coverup attempt gone awry, or more a limited hangout route, her malfeasance is but part and parcel of a much broader, sustained conspiracy of silence about the link between taconite mining and elevated rates of mesothelioma in Northeast Minnesota, a conspiracy that has enlisted elected and appointed officials of both parties. In fact, some of the very same politicians now calling for Mandernach’s head have in the past demonstrated little or no interest in the topic of asbestos exposure until her gaffe presented a grandstanding opportunity too choice to pass up. We can only speculate why Range politicians have until now been reluctant to dig too deep into the issue. The most likely culprit is a short-sighted fear that publicizing the link between taconite mining and mesothelioma might result in calls for tighter regulations that would raise production costs so high that the mine companies shut down operations altogether, thus eliminating jobs – and the union dues and campaign funds those jobs represent.
Anyone who doubts what I am saying need only review a lengthy investigative article aptly titled “Cancer Mystery Ignored” published a full 10 years ago by Blake Morrison in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press – an example, incidentally, of the kind of superb in-depth public affairs reporting we are not likely ever to witness again in either of our stripped-down metro dailies.
By the time the piece appeared, there was already a good 15 years of evidence pointing toward a link between taconite mining and mesothelioma. In fact, public concern about the issue goes back to the early 1980s when a Virginia, Minnesota doctor reported numerous instances of asbestos-related anomalies in chest X-rays taken of local miners. Morrison’s article details incident after incident beginning in the mid-1980s in which politicians or public officials promised to fund studies that would root out the truth about taconite mining and asbestos exposure, only to renege on those promises. One representative incident involved Gary Lammpa, then head of the IRRRB (Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board), an agency whose board is made up of Range lawmakers and is funded by the taconite industry. Even though then-Gov. Rudy Perpich himself pressed the agency to investigate, Lammpa declined and in 1985 wrote the Commissioner for State Planning that the IRRRB board had decided, in its infinite epidemiological wisdom, that no study was needed.
In recent weeks, Morrison’s reporting has been ratified in conversations I have had with retired taconite miners who have been trying for two decades to sound the alarm about asbestos. Their attitude toward Mandernach is, surprisingly, far less virulent than the ire they reserve for iconic DFL figures like long-time Range legislator, Doug Johnson, or Rep. Jim Oberstar (the latter, of course, one of the leading forces behind Minnesota’s ill-considered 1991 decision to “lend” almost $400 million of taxpayer money to Northwest Airlines. Not only has that money never been repaid but the jobs that the airline was supposed to create in Northeast Minnesota in exchange for the cash have not materialized, either. Does it come as a huge surprise that Oberstar – a ranking member of the House aviation committee – has been a leading recipient of campaign funds both from the company and the unions that represent Northwest’s workforce?)
As a result of Morrison’s article and other alarming data coming out at the time, the state finally appropriated $250,000 a year to establish ORDIS. ORDIS was to be a three-part initiative. One was to carry out the first-ever comprehensive study of asbestos exposure on the Range, beginning with exposure to asbestos in commercial settings, such as construction and manufacturing, then in the open-pit mining operations. Another leg of ORDIS was to be the creation of an Occupational Respiratory Disease Information System (hence the acronym ORDIS); the third was to complete an occupational cohort mortality study of all causes of death on the Range.
In 2002, money for ORDIS was eliminated as part of budget cuts that year – cuts that were made inevitable by the marriage of convenience that had taken place the year before between the Republican and DFL leadership at the Capitol. Remember? That was the alliance forged specifically to scuttle Jesse Ventura’s long-term budget balancing proposals – proposals that would have allowed the state to avoid the looming budget deficit. The joint DFL-GOP opposition was not rooted in a miscalculation of future state revenues and expenses but narrow political calculation; neither party wanted to grant Ventura a legislative victory that might have ended up establishing the Independence Party as a genuine third-party alternative. In the end, there was only enough funding left for ORDIS to complete the first part of the asbestos study, the one linking mesothelioma with commercial exposures.
Today, pleural asbestosis may prove to be pandemic among Minnesota’s older taconite miners – we won’t find out until and unless the Legislature funds a new study to be headed up by the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. In turn, asbestosis has been shown to be a precursor to mesothelioma, which has an incubation period of 20 to 30 years. It’s difficult to say how many cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma might have been prevented if the state had acted decisively 20 years ago. Who can say how many lives might have been saved, how many wheezing asbestosis victims spared a lifetime of disability, if all the self-proclaimed Friends of the Working Man in Minnesota’s political arena had followed through on their promises to look into things and make them right? We shall never find out.
Clearly, what Mandernach did was wrong and she needs to go, if for no other reason than that she has completely forfeited her credibility – and what the hell is a Health Commissioner worth if she is no longer trusted? But she and anyone else who end up paying the price for the current scandal hardly deserve our pity.
Asbestosis is no picnic, but mesothelioma is truly a gruesome way to die, with some victims ending their days in agony as runaway tumors in the pleural lining snap open the rib cage one rib at a time – a fate so cruel that it might have been dreamed up by the Romans as final punishment for prisoners gibbeted atop Golgotha. No. Mandernach’s symbolic crucifixion hardly compares to the anxiety and suffering experienced by Iron Range miners and their families repeatedly betrayed these past two decades by state officials willing to place political expediency and their political careers over public health.