Miners look for answers on taconite exposure

Mining truck, Hibbing Taconite
A truck carries taconite rock to the crusher building at Hibbing Taconite. Taconite dust is being studied as a possible cause of a rare form of lung cancer, mesothelioma, which has stricken miners and retirees on the Iron Range.
MPR file photo

At a union hall in Eveleth, a group of retired iron miners are getting together to talk about a rare and deadly lung disease.

People who get mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos, usually by working on ships or in construction, where asbestos was long used as an insulator.

It can take 30 years for the disease to show itself. But then death usually comes within a year and a half.

Mesothelioma has been claiming a lot of victims in northeastern Minnesota, many of them former miners.

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Dave Trach runs a steelworker retiree group. He worked at the LTV mine his whole life.

"We were young; we were going to live forever," he says. "Nobody ever told us that you've got to be careful and watch out for this thing called asbestos."

Dave Trach
Dave Trach is a retired steelworker from LTV Mining. He says company officials never warned workers about the risk from asbestos. A screening program shows about a third of retirees have some sort of lung problem.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Trach himself is healthy. But he stays in touch with people who haven't been so lucky. He helped organize a screening program for LTV retirees. He says a third of them have come up with some sort of lung problem.

Bill Stodola has only about half of his lung function left. He hasn't been diagnosed with mesothelioma. But his lung disease, associated with asbestos, shows he's been exposed to a killer.

"You saw things you knew weren't good," he says. "You watched these guys mix this powdered asbestos. I just shook my head at that: there were guys that did that every day for years."

The long latency period is running out, and more and more people are being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other lung diseases.

Four years ago the Minnesota Department of Health studied 17 mine workers who died of mesothelioma. The department concluded the most likely cause was "commercial asbestos," that is, the product used in the plants for insulation and other industrial functions.

Some miners aren't convinced.

Tim Carlson
Tim Carlson is a union safety official at the Minntac mine. He and others want to know whether dust from the taconite ore is dangerous.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

They point to the discovery 30 years ago of asbestos-like fibers in the waste rock at Reserve Mining. The company was dumping the waste in Lake Superior, and the fibers were showing up in the drinking water in Duluth and other towns along the shore. The discovery led to a landmark court case that ultimately forced Reserve to quit dumping in the Lake.

Dave Trach wonders whether similar fibers at other mines might be contributing to lung diseases, along with the commercial asbestos products.

"I mean, there's products that were used in the plant that I'm sure were used all over the state," he says. "There's something different."

In the four years since its last study, the Health Department has identified 35 more mesothelioma victims. Now the agency plans to dig deeper to try to find out whether taconite dust itself might be contributing to the problem.

Bill Stodola's wife, Mary, says it's about time. She says workers in the mines today are being exposed to the same dangerous stuff.

Taconite fiber
This electron microscope photo shows a taconite fiber breaking up into smaller fibers in rat lung tissue. The state Health Department is conducting studies to see if taconite fibers can cause mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer which is usually associated with asbestos exposure.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Philip Cook, U.S. EPA

"We had a son that worked at the mines," she says. "And we told him no, absolutely not, we don't want you working there any longer."

And she thinks the danger might go beyond the plant itself. She never worked in a mine, but she has asthma and a touch of lung cancer. And she knows ten women in her small town who've had breast cancer.

"So it's just not the mine itself, where you're working; it's also in our air up there," she says. "And then I see last year they were selling all these taconite rocks, and people are using them in landscaping; they're using them on roads in the Twin Cities. That petrified me when I heard that."

Mary Stodola
Mary Stodola worries taconite dust might pose a health threat far beyond the mines.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

These days, mining companies offer yearly x-ray screenings to current workers. But some, like third-generation miner Tim Carlson, get their own check-ups.

"I feel I should be concerned with my health so I do my own," Carlson says. "Thirty-five years with U.S. Steel, I don't trust them, plain and simple."

Carlson's uncle died of colon cancer, and his father died from a respiratory problem -- undiagnosed.

The Department of Health is planning a more comprehensive study, comparing the work experiences and possible exposures of mine workers who developed mesothelioma with those who didn't. A spokesman says the study will be able to determine the source of the asbestos, whether it came from commercial products or from the mine dust.