Workers, state demand answers

The Department of Health must answer for delaying release of cancer findings in mines.

Travel through the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, and you’ll see the land opened up, exposing the red iron ore and taconite deposits that brought jobs and prosperity to the region generations ago. Now, that red taconite dust is bringing something else to the Iron Range: mesothelioma – a rare and extremely deadly form of cancer. In 2003, a Minnesota Department of Health study found that 17 miners had died from what was believed to be commercial asbestos-related cancer between 1988 and 1996. In March of 2006, they found that the miners who died from the cancer were more than double that number – 52 – and that it was caused by the mine dust itself, which is chemically identical to asbestos, according to a report Sunday in the Star Tribune.

They did not, however, disclose this to the public, and more importantly, to the estimated 4,000 men and women who work in the taconite industry every day in Minnesota. More information about why the state chose to withhold this information for a year until this March is sure to come out in the next weeks. But now we know that the Health Department had drafted a news release in June of last year, but only intended to release it if findings were leaked, according to the Star Tribune.

Internal Health Department documents uncovered by the Star Tribune found that one of Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach’s briefings stated that “Release of the findings is likely to generate demands that the government do more to protect workers.” Pardon us, but isn’t that why the Health Department exists? In addition, the Health Department excluded two University researchers from the study because the department feared that they might leak the information.

Commissioner Mandernach makes the dubious claim that in the year since learning of the additional 35 deaths, the department has been trying to put together studies to “Ömake sure we had a scientific basis and protocol put together.” This is no excuse for withholding information about the safety of the mines.

Because the Legislature cut funding on its mesothelioma study, the state is ill-equipped to be doing the kind of comprehensive study that Mandernach claims the department is working on. Keeping this information in the dark didn’t allow utilization of the federal Mine, Safety and Health Administration, or any other outside expertise that could have aided their research. Either the Department of Health has been negligent in its duty, or worse, willfully resistant to carrying it out. The entire state deserves an answer to why this public institution failed.