Health Department cover-up – mistake or malfeasance?


“If this is leaked in any way and there is some digging by the media, we will have hell to pay…” The MN Department of Health’s decision not to disclose additional mesothelioma deaths among iron miners is not a “mistake” that an apology will fix.

Opinion: Health Department cover-up – mistake or malfeasance?

After legislative hearings and a review of Health Department memos, it is clear that this was a calculated decision to keep the information secret, without regard to the health impact on miners, until the Pawlenty administration could put the proper spin on it.

Why was this failure to release the information about additional miner deaths so harmful? Back in 2003, the Health Department learned that 17 taconite miners had died from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related form of cancer. At that time the department suggested that it was not taconite dust, but the use of commercial asbestos in certain mining operations that caused the cancer. In March of 2006, when the department learned that an additional 35 miners had died from mesothelioma, it appeared more likely that the cause was asbestos-like fibers in taconite dust. This means the risk was not only for workers doing welding or other jobs where asbestos was once used, but virtually every mine worker might be susceptible to this deadly cancer.

If this was disclosed promptly, more could have been done to protect people currently working in the mines. Internal health department memos acknowledged that release of the findings would raise demands that additional steps be taken by the mining company and the state.

Nobody would be surprised to hear that a mining company had hidden information about health risks from its employees. They would be disappointed, but not surprised. The failure to protect worker safety is far too common in some industries. But to hear that the Minnesota Health Department, a public agency with the responsibility to protect public health, withheld information about safety risks — that is stunning!

Governor Pawlenty’s office says they were unaware of the decision not to disclose the deaths to the public, and they dismiss it as a mistake. Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach says she is sorry and that it was simply bad judgment, but claims she was trying to do the right thing for the miners.

However, internal documents from the Health Department tell an entirely different story. It is not plausible that the hiding information about health risks from mine workers was done out of concern for the workers. It is also contradicted by department memos. Consider this one:

“If this is leaked in any way and there is some digging by the media, we will have hell to pay…. I want to again say that these new data convey very serious consequences for many, many men that other knowledgeable people in the field will define for the media and others if we do not take the lead.”

This memo, from a Health Department doctor who thought the department should release the information promptly, acknowledges there could be serious consequences for large numbers of workers, yet the focus of its concerns is not on the well-being of the miners, but on how it will be defined in the media and how it would look for the administration.

A stack of the Health Department’s internal correspondence relates not to the serious health concerns raised by the findings, but about how the information would be disseminated, and the need for the Governor’s office to be involved:

“The Commissioner did not want that (the number of new mesothelioma deaths) released until the Governor’s office was briefed.” (April 4, 2006 MDH internal memo)

— Another April 2006 memo to Commissioner Mandernach lists the subject as “Plan for Dissemination of New Mesothelioma Findings.” It begins: “Attached is the briefing paper for the governor that you requested,” and continues, “Upon briefing the governor, we would like approval to disseminate these findings…”

The Health Commissioner’s concerns about keeping the information secret was so great that they would not disclose it even to researchers who might have been able to help interpret the meaning of the findings:

— At a legislative committee hearing in June, one department employee testified that she did not believe that she could share the information about the new mesothelioma deaths even with a senior epidemiologist who was working for the department, because the Commissioner made it clear that the information was not to be disclosed to anyone until the Governor’s office approved its disclosure. The employee testified that the researcher was unable to do the proposed analysis of the mesothelioma data without seeing the numbers. “We were told not to talk about the numbers so we did not talk about them, even to staff who would have done that type of work. So, it wasn’t done.”

— “Department officials were so concerned about a possible leak that they excluded two prominent University of Minnesota researchers from scientific consultation because they had been critical of the Health Department in the past.” (Star Tribune investigative report, June 17, 2007)

Keeping it secret from scientific researchers who should be analyzing it — this was not done to protect the miners.

After the findings had been kept secret for almost a year, we know that Cleveland-Cliffs, the mining company, was fully aware of the information, and was working with the Pawlenty administration on coordinating press releases relating to the disclosure of it. A few days before releasing the information, the Pawlenty administration met with Cleveland Cliffs to plot their course of action. One memo turned over by the department shows some of the questions they were preparing themselves for:

–“Why do you need to wait for federal funding to begin work on the mesothelioma study? Given the potential significance of this issue for people who still work in the industry, why wasn’t this included in the governor’s budget?”

–“Some scientists have publicly criticized the findings of (the Health Department’s) 2003 study, in which you pinned the mesothelioma cases on commercial asbestos rather than taconite dust…. Don’t the additional mesothelioma cases call those findings into question?”

–“What are you telling mine workers right now about the safety of their chosen occupation? …What obligations do their employers have?”

–“Is this really being done to identify and address possible occupational or environmental health problems? Or do you just want to give the iron range a “clean bill of health,” to provide a green light for future economic development?” (Cleveland-Cliffs was trying to get a state permit approved for expansion of its operations, but was running into problems because of environmental concerns.)

Here we have the state agency responsible for protecting public health secretly meeting with the mining company to discuss the political consequences for the Pawlenty administration and the mining company when they release the information to the public. And they claim this was a “mistake” that was done with the best interest of the miners at heart.

Remember, this secret meeting with all of these discussions about spin occurred well after the date that Governor Pawlenty’s office admitted that they had been fully briefed on the matter. They can claim that they were totally in the dark at the beginning, but by this stage, the Governor’s office was involved.

Commissioner Mandernach repeatedly has stated that they did not want to release the information about health risks to the miners until the administration had “all their ducks in a row.” Forget about the Pawlenty administration’s ducks. How about showing some concern for the miners and their families?

No, this was not a mistake. It was a cynical attempt to protect the Pawlenty administration’s political interests. It is time for Commissioner Mandernach, and those in the Governor’s office who were involved, to be dismissed.

John Marty represents District 54 in the state Senate and chairs the Health, Housing and Family Security Committee. Read his other commentaries at