U seeks $6 million for studies on mining

A chunk of the University’s biennial budget request would go to research on mining’s impact.

Blair Emerson

The University of Minnesota is requesting $6.25 million from the state Legislature to address the environmental, health and economic impacts of Minnesota’s mining industry.

The multimillion-dollar “mining solutions” initiative, a part of the institution’s $1.3 billion 2016-17 biennial budget request, will support students and researchers studying the effects of mining, which many University and government leaders say is a leading issue in the state.

Minnesota is the largest producer of iron ore and taconite in the country, said Jim Sellner, manager of engineering and development at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ lands and minerals division. Collectively, the state’s six taconite facilities produce more than 47 million tons of taconite each year, he said.

If lawmakers approve it, the University’s proposal would provide students and researchers with funds for equipment purchases and demonstrating their mining research, Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said.

Joe Labuz, a professor and head of the civil engineering department, said he hopes the University will allocate funding toward mining activities.

“[Mineral extraction] should be done in the least disruptive way so it doesn’t impact the environment,” he said.

Some faculty members at the University’s Center for Engineered Fracturing of Rock are currently studying these processes, he said, but additional funding will be necessary to further the center’s research in the field.

The University has a long history of mining research in the state.

In 2007, the Minnesota Department of Health reported that 58 former mine workers in the state were diagnosed with mesothelioma, a fatal lung cancer.

While rumors surfaced that the disease was a result of exposure to taconite dust, health professionals needed research on the topic to confirm that, said Dr. Jeff Mandel, an associate professor at the School of Public Health.

The result was the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study, which started in 2008. The study, which Mandel oversees, received $4.9 million from the Legislature to investigate items like the cause of death among taconite workers, their levels of exposure to the dust and disease in the workers and their spouses.

Once complete, the research will have an impact on mine workers, companies and communities near the mining sites, Mandel said.

The team will submit a final report to the Legislature in December, Mandel said, but future studies will likely emerge from its findings.

“We’ll probably need to get additional funds to look at some of these other findings in more detail,” he said.