UPDATED: Steelworkers demand inquiry into mesothelioma study

United Steelworkers leaders are calling for a legislative and criminal investigation into the Minnesota Department of Health's delayed release of a report on additional cases of a deadly cancer found among Iron Range miners.

United Steelworkers leaders are calling for a legislative and criminal investigation into the Minnesota Department of Health's delayed release of a report on additional cases of a deadly cancer found among Iron Range miners.

"This has been so badly handled by the Department of Health that it has to be looked into," Bob Bratulich, United Steelworkers District 11 director, said Tuesday.

Mesothelioma is a rare, always-fatal cancer that affects the lining of the lungs. It can develop as long as 40 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos fibers.

A 2003 Health Department study of 72,000 people who worked in Northeastern Minnesota mines between the 1930s and 1982 found 17 miners who developed mesothelioma between 1988 and 1996. The department said commercial asbestos such as that used in furnaces, boilers and plumbing, not taconite dust, was the probable source.

In March, the department released findings that an additional 35 miners had been determined to have the disease. All have died.


However, a Minneapolis Star Tribune report published Sunday found that the health department knew about the 35 additional cases in 2006 but didn't release the information until March 2007.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office on Tuesday distanced itself from the Health Department's action.

"Our office was not involved in the Health Department's decision regarding the mesothelioma study," said Alex Carey, a spokesman for Pawlenty. "We believe they should have released the information sooner."

News of the Health Department's delay has angered steelworkers, who say it cost valuable time to study and determine the cancer's source.

"It doesn't appear that we know whether or not this is caused by commercial fibers, fibers in the rock or a combination or both," Bratulich said. "It's about time we do an in-depth study."

Health Department Commissioner Dianne Mandernach told the Star Tribune that the department needed time to develop plans for a new study before releasing the findings.

John Stieger, a health department spokesman, said Tuesday the department would fully cooperate with any investigation.

Health Department officials are beginning a $750,000 to $1 million, three-year study of mesothelioma in the mine workers. The study will focus on possible past exposure of workers to taconite dust and potential exposure to commercial asbestos.


Dave Trach of Eveleth, an employee for 38 years at the former LTV Steel Mining Co. and head of the local chapter of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, said he was disgusted to learn of the Health Department's delayed release.

"I always thought that the Department of Health was for the people of Minnesota," said Trach, 72. "But maybe I'm wrong."

Trach is among hundreds of former miners who have been screened for mesothelioma since 1996. So far he hasn't developed any signs, he said.

"I think everybody recognizes that asbestos in mining is a problem whether it comes from the ground or [from] products that we used, or a combination," Trach said. "I really hope they find once and for all what the problem is."

Across all of Northeastern Minnesota, records show at least 136 mesothelioma cases in men reported between 1988 and 2005. Health Department officials have said that's more than double the rate that should occur on the average. Some of the numbers can be attributed to 5,000 people who worked at the former Conwed plant in Cloquet, which manufactured asbestos ceiling tile.

There has not been ahigher-than-average rate of mesothelioma among women in the region, according to the Health Department.

Bratulich said Steelworkers are considering filing a civil suit for the yearlong delay in the release of taconite industry information.

He's also calling on the Legislature and attorney general's office to investigate whether Mandernach; Dr. Alan Bender, head of the environmental epidemiology section; or taconite company officials knew about the delay.


Iron ore supplierCleveland-Cliffs in March said it would pay for a health study of current and former workers at Northshore Mining Co. in Silver Bay and Babbitt. Taconite tailings produced at the facility can't be used off-site because they contain asbestos-like fibers.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Bovey, said Tuesday he's trying to arrange a public meeting of stakeholders this summer in St. Paul to get lawmakers moving in case the House needs to approve money for studies. Anzelc said he fears a study by the Health Department and one by Cleveland-Cliffs could end up contradicting one other. That could lead to even more confusion among miners and the public, he said.

If information on the 35 new cases had been released in 2006 rather than 2007, the study could have been under way, Bratulich said.

"They knew about this in '06," Bratulich said. "Why are we now talking about starting a study in 2007? It should have started in 2006."

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