Health Department tipped mining company on cancer study, documents show

Health Department spokesman Buddy Ferguson said the department informed the Cleveland-Cliffs Mining Company about the study one week before the department released the information to the public.

Ferguson said the department informed Cleveland-Cliffs about the cancer deaths during discussions about other scientific studies on the Iron Range. The company was told about the deaths on March 22. The information went public on March 28.

"I guess we don't really see a lot of difference between telling them on Thursday and releasing it to the media on Wednesday. You have to understand that this is a long-standing issue with a long history and we have been involved it and concerned about it for a long time," he said.

That explanation doesn't sit well with DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm. Sertich, who represents a portion of the Iron Range, says the company should have found out at the same time as everyone else.

"When you're talking about letting one business know before the actual lives of the people who were most affected by it, that's a severe blow to the trust of this agency. That alone is indefensible," according to Sertich.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach has been under fire after a news report found that she knew about the study for one full year before releasing it to the public. The study found that a rare cancer known as mesothelioma killed 35 mine workers in northeastern Minnesota between 1997 and 2006. The department announced last week that an additional six miners also died from the cancer.

Mandernach was unavailable to comment. But she said on Public TV's Almanac program last Friday that it was a mistake to delay the release of the information while looking for more money to do another study.

"I apologize for a bad decision. The 35 deaths that have occurred since 2002, we should have come forward -- I should have come forward -- and provided that information. What we were, what I was trying to do was to identify a funding source so we could pursue a study so we can get to a resolution," Mandernach said.

But internal documents provided to Minnesota Public Radio News by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, show that a department official expressed skepticism last year that the department would receive federal funding.

The documents also show that department officials were concerned about funding for additional studies and the possible impact on the mining industry.

One e-mail says, "the lack of federal funding will lead to questions about state funding that, as you know, are quite sensitive."

Sen. Marty, who will co-chair Tuesday's hearing in St. Paul, says the department was more concerned about crafting its message to the public than informing the public. He points to one e-mail from a department scientist that says says there will be, "hell to pay" if the findings were leaked to the media. The scientist also wrote that he hopes they don't need to hold a news conference or town hall meeting on the findings because "it will not go well."

"Facts are facts," said Marty, who thinks the information should've been released immediately. "Thirty-five more miners died from this. Six more miners died from this. That's a fact. You don't talk about spinning it, you talk about getting the facts out there to the public."

Ferguson, with the Health Department, says some of the documents are being misinterpreted. He says many of the documents were prepared to inform stakeholders, like citizen working groups and DFL lawmakers, about the information.

"A lot of the documents that are being bandied about now are being spun, quite frankly, to give a misleading impression, which is that we did an elaborate choreography to try to avoid this information to the public," he said.

Sen. Marty says he hopes Commissioner Mandernach will provide greater detail into the department's thinking at the hearing. Two committees in the Minnesota House will hold another hearing in Mountain Iron on Thursday night.