Iron Range deaths: a case unsolved

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series exploring the potential dangers of taconite dust on miners in the Iron Range. Tomorrow’s story will look at taconite dust regulations.

Jessica Van Berkel

Virginia, Minn.âÄî There was dust when Roger Holmstrom loaded his truck, dust when he drove the unpaved paths of the mine and dust when he dumped his load of taconite in the crusher. In 36 years of working at the mines, he was never told how dangerous taconite dust could be. No one was told, because no one knows. In April 2008, the University of Minnesota received $4.9 million to research a possible link between dust created in mining and the deaths of at least 58 Mesabi Iron Range miners due to mesothelioma since 1988. The rare lung cancer, which takes 20 to 50 years to surface, is commonly the result of asbestos exposure. Previous studies concluded this was the case in the taconite mines, where asbestos once coated pipes and was used in gloves and coats to protect against heat. But in June 2007, the Minnesota Department of Health data that had gone unannounced for more than a year showed 35 people on the Iron Range had been diagnosed with mesothelioma from 1997 to 2005. John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health, said since the health department sat on the data for more than a year Minnesota legislators decided to turn to the University with a long-unanswered question: has taconite dust played a role in the deaths? Now, miners and their families will have to wait until at least 2011 to see if the dust that is part of their daily life is killing them. Five-part study Taconite fibers share similar dimensions to asbestos. They are long, thin particles that can infiltrate deep into the lungs. At the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth , a team of researchers measure airborne particles from different areas of northern Minnesota, using Micro-Orifice Uniform Deposit Impactors (MOUDI ). The cylindrical machines separate dust particles of different sizes, measuring how deep they could penetrate the lungs. The airborne particulate research is one of five study components. Other parts include looking at occupational exposures, cancer incidence, miner death records and health exams. In August, a group of five nurses and nurse technicians started conducting daily two-hour health examinations of miners and their spouses at Virginia Regional Medical Center . Exams include lung tests, chest X-rays, questionnaires and checkups. Participants receive the results a month later. They plan to examine 1,200 retired and working miners and 800 of their spouses. Participants are selected randomly, and must receive an invitation to participate. Appointments âÄústarted slowlyâÄù this summer, but are âÄúramping up,âÄù nurse technician Nancy Tekautz said. Dave Trach, president of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees District 11, said that some are unwilling to participate in the study because they are afraid to hear the results. âÄúSome people just donâÄôt want to know,âÄù Trach said. Tekautz has lived on the Iron Range for 30 years, and she said most people there want to participate. But some people donâÄôt respond to the invitation because they donâÄôt fully understand the study, she said. The University held a public information meeting to educate people about the study at Virginia Regional Medical Center last Thursday. Mike Woods, president of United Steelworkers Local 1938, said meetings havenâÄôt been well publicized, which may contribute to lower participation rates. He said heâÄôd participate if asked. âÄúIf there is a link in the dust that can cause those problems, weâÄôre going to hopefully have a way to prevent it from other generations of people.âÄù A community affected? By having spouses participate, researchers can monitor if taconite dust carried on clothing, cars or through the air can affect communities outside the mine. One minerâÄôs wife wouldnâÄôt let him enter their house in his dust-coated work clothes, instead making him wash his clothing at a Laundromat, Finnegan said. Ann Palmquist, owner of Laundry Plus in Virginia, said she has certain machines designated for miners, because the dust builds up as a black sludge thatâÄôs tough to clean. So far, the airborne particulate study has shown that when a MOUDI machine is placed in a community itâÄôs âÄúpretty clean air,âÄù and takes five to seven days to fill the machineâÄôs filter, Dr. Tamara Diedrich, who leads the airborne particle study, said. But at the mines, the machine would clog in just a couple of hours, she said. âÄúThereâÄôs just so much there,âÄù she said. Complicated collaboration Three companies own the six mines on the Iron Range: ArcelorMittal, U.S. Steel and Cliffs Natural Resources Co. The mining industry makes up 34 percent of the economy on the Iron Range, said Maureen Talarico, a spokesperson for Cliffs Natural Resources Co., which owns three of the mines on the Range. The proposed link between taconite dust and lung cancer has not led to new dust precautions in the mines. âÄúWeâÄôre not going to speculate,âÄù Talarico said. The company is cooperating with the study and âÄúanticipating results,âÄù she said. The University has been working with the companies to collect air and rock samples. It also took the names and addresses of employees to send them invitations for the health examination, Mandel said. However, U.S. Steel âÄújumped out in front of things,âÄù and sent two letters to employees asking for their consent to release the information, Dr. Jeffrey Mandel, study leader and Environmental Health Sciences professor, said. Mandel said U.S. Steel was not asked to send out the letters. âÄúA lot [of people] didnâÄôt sign the release,âÄù Woods said. âÄúThey were leery about giving their consent because they figured U.S. Steel somehow would use it against them up there in the course of their employment.âÄù The University was able to obtain the information without the consent of people working in the mines, Mandel said. Mandel said the mining companies would not know who participated in the study. Holmstrom said the companies will find out. He and Trach said they heard similar comments from intimidated miners at an Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board meeting. The miners said they were worried they might be fired for participating. Mandel did not see the U.S. Steel letters, but said he âÄúnever had any indication from the companies that that would ever actually happen.âÄù Mandel said the company had good intentions and wanted to make the workers aware that they were giving out the information. He said sometimes people âÄúover-interpretâÄù the letters. Holmstrom said the letterâÄòs wording was out of line, and that âÄúlittle things like that damage the whole damn thing.âÄù Courtney Boone, spokesperson for U.S. Steel, had not heard of the letters and would not comment on them. UâÄôs history on the Range The University has had a long history of involvement on the Iron Range, beginning when it âÄúsaved their economic butts in the twentieth century,âÄù by discovering how to use low-grade iron ore to produce the steel pellets currently made in mines, Finnegan said. The innovation occurred in the 1960s. University interest in miner health began in the mid-1980s when Dr. Leonard Schuman compiled a cohort of miner work history information from 1953 to 1983. The cohort includes about 70,000 individuals, and is being used in the current study, Mandel said. The University is comparing it with death certificates to identify deaths caused by exposures. After the Minnesota Department of Health failed to release the data on mesothelioma cases for more than a year, the Legislature had âÄúno faith in the health departmentâÄôs ability to do [the study],âÄù Finnegan said. He said Gov. Tim Pawlenty allocated money from the general state fund to the University to settle the issue once and for all. While the majority of money came from the state, Iron Range Resources, the Minnesota Department of Health and the University contributed as well. The University contributed $300,000 to bridge the time before the funding bill passed in the Legislature, Finnegan said. Studies of taconite dust in the past have not been conclusive. The long history of starts and stops was due to lack of funding, Finnegan said. âÄúThis is the big one,âÄù he said. Trach has seen mesothelioma studies come up short in the past because money ran out. He said the University taking five years to study the issue and get people involved in the process is necessary. âÄùIf we donâÄôt find out this time, I donâÄôt know where you go.âÄù For retired miners like Trach and Roger Holmstrom, the study is too late. If the dust is dangerous, itâÄôs protecting the people working in the mines now thatâÄôs important, Trach said. âÄúMining is a dusty occupation,âÄù Mandel said. âÄúItâÄôs one of those things you canâÄôt get away from.âÄù