Iron Range families worry about extent of cancer threat


As the better than 300 Iron Range residents filed into the Mountain Iron Community Center Thursday night for a legislative hearing, they were able to take a thick “Cancer in Minnesota, 2003: Preliminary Report” off a table at the door. But in three hours of testimony by over a dozen miners and mining widows, it was apparent they know the score and are tired of studies.

“This isn’t new,” said retired miner Bill Rudolph of the information that cancer deaths were higher on the Iron Range than elsewhere. “This has been going on since the first taconite mine was put in Babbitt in 1953.”

Sixteen members of the Minnesota Legislature were in Mountain Iron for the second hearing on charges that Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach covered up for a year the fact that an additional 35 miners died of mesothelioma – a rare form of cancer – since the 2003 study.

Iron Range legislators have asked her to resign, but Mandernach, who attended the hearing, only apologized for her “error in judgment.”

Someone in the crowd yelled out “We don’t accept!” which drew positive responses from many.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he stands behind his Moose Lake appointee.

Legislators took Mandernach to task for saying she withheld the information because she wanted to have a plan to pursue the reasons for the deaths. The 2003 study had tried to link the high incidence of deaths, 17 originally, to commercial asbestos in the plants, but Steel Workers said they knew asbestos wasn’t the primary cause.

Mandernach said she wanted to pursue federal funding for more studies, eliciting frustration from Senator Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

“It’s like talking to a wall,” Tomassoni told Mandernach, who was at a table in front of legislators. “I’m shocked you say you’d ask for federal money, which I’ve heard was $100,000. You’re not listening, not doing what we ask you to do – that’s why there’s no confidence in you or your department.”

A staff person for Congressman Jim Oberstar read a letter from him in which he stated that the health commissioner’s comments in the past week were the first he had heard about MDH seeking federal funding.

“If you had sought my assistance, that study would be going on,” Oberstar wrote. Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, chastised Mandernach for allowing two legislative sessions to pass without asking for funding.

On Tuesday at a similar hearing in St. Paul, Tomassoni urged Pawlenty to call a special session to allocate funding for studies of lung problems on the Iron Range.

Saying their patience has worn thin, the legislators decided to ask the University of Minnesota to lead the studies.

“We need to put this black snow and dust on the clotheslines to rest,” Rukavina told Mandernach, alluding to the taconite dust that is pervasive across the Iron Range. “There’s no confidence in your department and so we’ve asked University of Minnesota President Bruininks to help.”

Rukavina said the University and the Natural Resources Research Institute both receive iron ore royalties and have the funds and expertise to get started immediately.

Rukavina called University Professors Jeffrey Mandel and John Finnegan from the audience and they said they were willing to start immediately and work with MDH to find answers.

Mandel said they would take a year to look at the dust situation. It would take another three to five years to conduct a case control of mesothelioma and assess all causes of death, which would require mining company help. A third study would assess all manner of lung problems in current and former workers.

“This will be a laborious process because of the size of the study group, gathering work histories and assessing exposures,” Mandel said. He said they will need the United Steelworkers union and the mining companies at the table.

For people like David Trach, president of USW Soar, a union retirees group of 1,200, and many others at the hearing, the call for additional studies is more of the same with no help.

“In 1999 we had LTV screenings and of 480 tested, 286 were found to have lung problems from asbestos-like fibers,” Trach told the hearing. “We’ve had 30 years of talking and nothing’s been done. We retirees are already contaminated, so our concerns are with those still working. It’s not just the hourly people affected, it was the salaried too.”

Many speakers said their concern was for the children of the Iron Range. Mary Stodola of Hoyt Lakes said taconite tailings are being sold as landscaping materials.

“Save the kids, we’ve lost our older people,” she said.

Vernon Lane Jr., a contractor in the mines for 30 years, said he “probably won’t have a job tomorrow” for testifying, but mining companies could control the dust just by watering roads and facilities.

Miner Robert Bassing suggested core samples be taken of various ore bodies to assess asbestos, and blasting be controlled by things such as wind conditions.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Lake, said the technology is there but the cost of using it to protect people is too high by company standards. He suggested ownership records of all operations be compiled to assess responsibility for a class action lawsuit in the future.

Rukavina called on the mining companies to help fund the studies as 3M has done with a $13 million grant in Washington County after pollution was found in groundwater around the company’s facilities.

“We need the industry to exist, but no one should die for working for a mining company,” Rukavina said.

Larry Sillanpa edits the Duluth Labor World, the official publication of the Duluth Central Labor Body, AFL-CIO. Visit the newspaper’s website,