Officials with the mining company and state health experts now agree that one study is better than two.
The University of Minnesota study is intended to figure out whether tiny fibers or particles generated by taconite mining are killing people on the Iron Range. That study is just getting under way.
A public meeting in Eveleth updated local people about the progress. The state study is supported by dozens of organizations including the Minnesota Department of Health, the DNR and mining companies. But until now, one key player had been going it alone.
Cleveland Cliffs Corp. was planning its own study, hoping to put to rest years of criticism about dust problems at its Silver Bay taconite facility and shipping dock. Cliffs spokesman Dana Byrne says those plans are now being dropped. Byrne says the state study could uncover any problems in Silver Bay.
"I think it's going to answer all those questions that have been out there for years," he says. "And once the questions are answered, I think it's going to improve the situation."
And Byrne says the mining company will fully support the larger study.
"We have a great deal of information," he says. "Worker information, other information that we've accumulated over the years at our operation. It's not a small undertaking to identify that and present that, so we want to make that information available. Our feeling is that, you know, good information will produce good results."
That's good news for the state study, according to Tom Anzelc, a Keewatin native, and now a DFL State Representative for District 3-A.
"I questioned the need and the wisdom of them doing their own study, resulting in outcomes that may of or might not have matched this study," Anzelc says. "And I don't want any more confusion, and I don't want any more conflict. I want clear outcomes."
University officials said Monday the cost of the study will come to about $5.5 million. That might be tough to squeeze from the Legislature, which is already facing state coffers some $800-million short of what was expected last summer. Anzelc says, one way or another, this study needs to be funded.
"It's always a challenge, but this is a public health issue of state-wide significance," he says. "But I really mean it when I say we'll think outside the box, and we'll put the package together from a variety of sources. We're not going to be bashful."
The study's director, Dr. John Finnegan, Dean of the University's School of Public Health, says it would be best for the state to put the full amount needed up front, rather than parcel it out over a period of possibly years.
"This is an urgent problem. This problem is not going to get better with time," Finnegan says. "We need to understand it as well as we can, and we need to do the best science that we can. And that's going to cost five and a half million dollars is our estimate at this point. I would prefer to have all of that money up front, rather than do it a little bit at a time over the next several years. Now, we hope that it's possible to actually do that."
Finnegan says it's important to keep a focus on the study to ensure it gets carried out.
"All the stars, the sun, the moon - they're all aligned here," he says. "You know, the Governor's on board. The legislature's on board, as far as the Range delegation is concerned. The iron mining industry and taconite industry of Minnesota is on board, and all the stakeholder groups that were here at this meeting today are all there and on board. So, what we've designed is the best science that we can do, but it costs money."
Some parts of the study are getting under way, with support from the participating organizations, but the bulk, Finnegan says, will have to come from the state legislature. The full study will take three years or more.