House committee approves study of Iron Range miners’ deaths

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What caused 58 taconite miners to contract a rare form of cancer? On Wednesday, the state Legislature took the first step toward finding an answer for the miners, their families and Iron Range communities.

On a voice vote, a House committee approved legislation to allocate $4.9 million for a study to determine the cause of the unusual number of cases. In the process, researchers may discover effects outside the workplace and how further cases can be prevented.

“The miners deserve an answer,” Steelworker Charlie Olson said in testimony before the House Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division.

Last year, the state Department of Health announced that 35 miners, in addition to 17 previously identified, had died from mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer that causes tumors on the surface of the lung. The number has since grown to 58, said Professor John Finnegan, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

“These cases were clearly in excess of what one would normally expect to see in an average-type population,” he said.

The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos fibers. Olson said miners have long suspected asbestos was being released in taconite processing. Asbestos-like fibers have been found in the ore mined on the eastern Iron Range.

On Friday, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration issued new rules that increase protections for miners who may be exposed to asbestos. An MSHA spokeswoman told the Duluth News Tribune that Northshore Mining Co. in Silver Bay is one of only five mines in the nation to have detectable levels of asbestos fibers show up in inspections in recent years, a statement the company disputes.

Studies of the health of Iron Range miners were attempted in the 1970s and again in the late 1990s, but never completed due to funding cuts, said committee Chairman Tom Rukavina, author of the legislation to fund the new study.

“What we’re trying to do is get to the bottom of this once and for all,” he said.

The legislation directs the University of Minnesota to initiate a study this year and complete work by 2013. The $4.9 million in funding would be appropriated in the 2008 fiscal year from the workers’ compensation special fund.

The university’s School of Public Health is taking the lead on the project and already has involved numerous stakeholders, including local communities, unions, companies, public officials and researchers, Finnegan said.

To date, the School has conducted meetings, set up a toll-free nurse helpline for questions on taconite worker lung health and launched a special website, www.sph.umn.edu/lunghealth/home.html

The School also has enlisted an advisory board of four highly regarded scientists to serve as peer reviewers.

Professor Jeffrey Mandel said that if the funding is provided, the study would focus on finding the cause of the mesothelioma and identifying other health conditions that may be affecting taconite workers. Researchers also propose to gather detailed family health histories from hundreds of people across the Iron Range.

The legislation to fund the study must go through another House committee before getting to the floor. The Senate has not yet held a hearing on the bill.

“I’m asking you to fund this study not for me . . . but for the new miners that are just starting,” Olson told legislators. “If this is a hazard to them, hopefully we can find out why and repair it.”

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