DNR asking questions about possible asbestos-like minerals in PenokeesThe Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has expressed concern that asbestos-like fibers could be released from iron ore mining or sampling in far northern Wisconsin.
By: Mike Simonson , WPR.org / 91.3 FM
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has expressed concern that asbestos-like fibers could be released from iron ore mining or sampling in far northern Wisconsin.
The focus is on a naturally occurring mineral called grunerite. DNR hydrogeologist Larry Lynch said grunerite is common in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Minnesota’s Iron Range and northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Range.
“It’s important because it can occur in a crystal form that is fibrous,” Lynch said. “It’s one of the minerals that’s referred to as asbestos or asbestos-form minerals.”
In most cases, grunerite is not fibrous, which means it wouldn’t take the shape of asbestos fibers. But Lynch said they need to find out if that’s the case at Gogebic Taconite’s proposed mining site near Mellen. Lynch said there could even be a problem with small-scale bulk-
sampling work, but he said he thinks steps proposed by Gogebic Taconite would make the process safe.
“We haven’t completed our review yet but that may be sufficient,” Lynch said. “It doesn’t mean it won’t be an issue in the future if there is a mining project proposed. Certainly with a full-scale mining operation you move much more material (and) there’s much greater particulate emissions.”
Asbestos fibers are linked to mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that has no cure.
A five-year, nearly $5 million University of Minnesota study showed the rate of mesothelioma on the Iron Range is almost three times higher than that of the general population in Minnesota.
The study found an association between the length of time a worker spent working in the taconite industry and an increased risk of developing mesothelioma. But researchers also found that the dust containing the particles that may cause lung problems is largely confined to the taconite mines — meaning little, if any, seems to filter into the surrounding communities — and today, mines have safety standards and procedures in place that largely protect workers, researchers said.
Last spring, the University of Minnesota researchers reported that they can’t say for sure that the dust from taconite operations causes mesothelioma, and they said they’re still looking for other possible sources of asbestos outside of the iron ore industry that may have affected the Iron Range workers.
Lynch said it’s far too early to know if there may be airborne fiber risks from the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine.
“We’re a long ways away in this project (to) really understanding how waste material is being handled, what the nature of the waste material is,” he said. “It’s an issue we’re going to have to look at if we get to that point.”
The fibers can become airborne or end up in water during mining operations. But Lynch said there are ways to control the release of the fibers, if they are found to be present in the Penokees.
The News Tribune contributed to this report.