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Dayton signs new mine inspector law

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has signed into law a major update of state rules on county mining inspectors -- the first such effort in 108 years. The legislation breezed through the House, 130-0, last week and passed the state Senate, 63-0. It will...

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton (2011 file / News Tribune)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has signed into law a major update of state rules on county mining inspectors -- the first such effort in 108 years.

The legislation breezed through the House, 130-0, last week and passed the state Senate, 63-0. It will change the way St. Louis County oversees safety inspections of taconite iron ore mines.

When Minnesota lawmakers wrote the state's primary mining safety law, most miners worked underground by the light of oil lamps, mules pulled carts of iron ore out of mine tunnels and Teddy Roosevelt was president. Despite some big changes in mining over the last 108 years -- including that all mining now is above-ground and no mules are involved -- the 1905 state statute requiring counties to inspect mines still stood on the books mostly unchanged.

And St. Louis County was supposed to enforce them.

For example, the 1905 law limited the county to paying the inspector just $7,500 a year. The county had been violating that part for years: The top mine inspector wage rate sits at more than $54,000, and the county's inspection budget topped $300,000 last year.

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The old law also restricts how the county can appoint new inspectors and requires that the inspector be of "good moral character and temperate habits." And until Dayton signed the change, it still requires the operator of a mine to keep "a sufficient and suitable supply of timber and logging on hand" at every mine to forestall cave-ins -- even though the last underground iron ore mine closed a half-century ago. All mining is now done in open pits, although some proposed copper mining could be underground.

The original mining inspector law passed at a time when mining was a deadly job.

From 1905 to 1911, an average of 73 people died each year in St. Louis County mine accidents. The number of mining deaths began to drop rapidly in the 1930s, and there have been no mining deaths since 2007 in St. Louis County and no deaths in 20 of the last 30 years.

Serious injuries dropped from 144 a year when the county inspections started to just 24 in 2011, the most recent year data is available.

St. Louis County alone once had more than 100 operating mines. Now there are seven active mining operations, with more on the way.

The county inspectors visit every mine regularly and respond to complaints, requests and every major accident. They inspect buildings, equipment, processing areas, mine pits and workplace processes -- how steelworkers do their job. They investigate every serious injury and fatality.

The county inspectors don't levy fines as does the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Instead, the county works with union and company safety committees to solve problems. In a pinch, the county can shut down access to unsafe areas or equipment.

The inspector's office also is charged with keeping the public out of unsafe areas around current and abandoned mines, not an easy task with 283 inactive mine operations spread across the Iron Range.

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St. Louis County is the only county in the state currently inspecting mines, including helping Itasca County with some operations just across the county line. County commissioners recently appointed Terrance O'Neil as the new county mine inspector for a three-year term that started April 2, replacing longtime chief inspector Barry Lesar who retired last year.

Dayton signed the bill May 2.

Related Topics: IRON RANGEMINING
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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