Deal paves the way for Iron Range cancer study

Mine sign
The entrance to the Cleveland Cliffs United Taconite facility.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

(AP) - Comprehensive research of a rare cancer affecting Iron Range miners will go forward after the northeastern Minnesota Democrats pushing for it and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty reached a compromise over the funding.

The deal announced Thursday takes $4.9 million for four phases of research from a Department of Commerce-administered fund that is now running a healthy surplus.

It avoids use of a special workers compensation fund, which Pawlenty feared could have meant premium increases for all businesses that feed into it.

Taconite fiber
This electron microscope photo shows a taconite fiber breaking up into smaller fibers in rat lung tissue. The study will 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

The state Senate gave preliminary approval to the research money. A final vote will come as soon as Monday. It then moves back to the House, where DFL Majority Leader Tony Sertich promised swift action.

"Everyone is in agreement that this study needs to be done," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. "Some way, somehow we need to get to the bottom of this."

The state Health Department has said 58 deaths in northeastern Minnesota are blamed on mesothelioma, which is usually caused by asbestos and has turned up among dozens of taconite miners.

Male residents of the region have come down with mesothelioma at unusually high rates since the late 1980s.

The University of Minnesota will lead the studies. They will analyze death records, and conduct screenings of current and former workers and their families. Environmental reviews will also be done. In all, the research is expected to take up to five years.

"Everyone is in agreement that this study needs to be done. Some way, somehow, we need to get to the bottom of this."

Lawmakers will get annual updates on researchers' findings and recommendations for reducing exposure to the agents believed to cause the cancer.

Pawlenty never questioned the merit of the research, but he had proposed paying for some of it through the general state treasury. He threatened to veto a bill that relied on the worker's compensation fund.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor supports the compromise because he is confident it won't result in increased costs to employers.

The so-called Assigned Risk Plan acts an insurance fund for companies that can't get worker's compensation policies in the open market. Insurance companies pay into the fund, which has accumulated a $41 million surplus.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board has already committed $250,000 to the effort, but Sertich said it wouldn't be fair to ask the regional board to foot the entire bill.

"When there is a public health issue of statewide significance, I believe it's appropriate for our Legislature and our state government to respond," he said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)