In Northern Minnesota, 58 miners have died from a rare and deadly cancer. As scientists struggle to figure out the source, those living on the Iron Range are left to wonder: who else is at risk?
(page 1 of 3)The white stucco bungalow is located on a tidy side street in downtown Hibbing. Paul Przybylski’s wife, Eileen, bought the house just before Paul met her two decades ago, and reminders of their life together are everywhere. Two face-to-face double-gliders Paul built for Eileen sit in the backyard. The amber-veined oak cabinets he spent months stripping and sanding furnish the kitchen. The living room is a riot of pink, the tiny dining room hung with pictures of Eileen’s kids from her first marriage, and from her and Paul’s wedding in Las Vegas. That was 18 years ago, but Przybylski looks 30 years younger.
Five years ago, Eileen was diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension, a disease affecting the heart and lungs. Looking back, Paul says, there were signs Eileen was sick long before the couple consulted a doctor. One day, the Przybylskis took a neighbor kid to the zoo in Superior, Wisconsin. “My wife was a lively, excited-about-life person,” Paul says. But that day, Eileen begged off the best exhibits, saying she needed to rest. He and the boy went on without her.
Now Przybylski looks at a snapshot of her waiting at a picnic table and can’t believe he didn’t see how ill she was. “You can see the stress in her face,” he says. Not that knowing her fate any earlier would have changed it.
The only thing that was going to save Eileen was a heart-lung transplant, and the odds of that were almost as long as the chances of her contracting primary pulmonary hypertension in the first place. The disease strikes one person in a million—and has no single known cause. The Przybylskis traveled the state seeing specialists, but the best the doctors could do was prescribe a drug that delivered more blood to Eileen’s lungs.
Eileen died eight months after her diagnosis. At the very end, she spent 13 days in the ICU at the local hospital. Przybylski was a bear to the staff, which was unfamiliar with her illness and unsure how to treat her. A year after her death, he ran into the hospital administrator and apologized for being so difficult. No problem, the man assured him. Funny thing, though, we’ve seen a second case since then.
Przybylski thought about the encounter last June, when he opened his morning paper to read that the state’s top health official had concealed information about the deaths of 35 miners due to mesothelioma, another rare lung disease—a cancer that is virtually always caused by exposure to some form of asbestos.
It was the second cluster of mesothelioma cases uncovered on the Iron Range. After the first was discovered, in 1998, state Health Department officials performed a study that blamed the presence of asbestos found in the mines, such as in the linings of the giant mills used to crush ore. The report’s inference was clear: If you get rid of the man-made asbestos, you get rid of the problem. The 35 new cases suggest that it might not be that simple. Taconite is one of the hardest substances on Earth, and in order to separate the valuable iron from the rock, it must be crushed, reduced to the consistency of baby powder, a process that creates massive amounts of dust. And for more than three decades, scientists, miners, and public officials have known that some of the taconite on the Range contains asbestos, silica, and other hazards. Over that time, however, no one—not the mining companies, not the government—has figured out whether the dust in the mines is deadly.
To Przybylski, and a growing number of Iron Range residents, there’s little doubt. To him, the question is who else is at risk: Did taconite dust contribute to Eileen’s illness? For years, he worked as a welder in at Hibbing Taconite, where he was constantly exposed to the dust. But you didn’t have to be a miner to breathe the stuff all day long. Across the Iron Range, the wind sweeps the gunmetal-colored powder through towns and deposits it on everything, from playground equipment to kitchen counters. By way of illustration, Przybylski runs a finger along the rim of his bathtub. It comes up black.
Przybylski is barrel-chested, with a shock of white hair that tends to fall across his fleshy face. Though he’s lived in Hibbing for more than 30 years, he’s still considered a Packsacker—Iron Range vernacular for an outsider. A Chicago native, he’s more outspoken and more direct than his neighbors, who are, by and large, a private lot.
He ended up in Hibbing by way of the Army. After high school, he did a stint in Vietnam with the Green Berets, and then at Fort Ripley. His deployment to Brainerd was only for a summer, but Przybylski liked northern Minnesota. On weekends, he would drive around and look for work. It was the mid-1970s, and there was only one way to make good money on the Range if you didn’t have a college degree. In 1977, he went to work in the mines.
Iron Range communities have always been company towns. The company may vary depending on the era and the town, but the basic bargain has always been the same. When times are tough, the mines slow production, shed jobs, or close altogether. But the good years mean money to spread around. The good years in Hibbing allowed it to build a city hall so opulent that the restrooms are lined with marble, and to construct a high school with ornate plasterwork in the auditorium. The good years allowed managers to buy houses on the nicest streets in town. The good years allowed almost every miner to afford a house like Przybylski’s.
Mining’s always been a dangerous gambit. In most places, it means working with explosives and chemicals in shafts sunk a mile underground. There were a once a couple of working shaft mines on the Iron Range, but because most of the ore here is nearer the surface and relatively easy to get at, it’s mined in open pits.
The Range’s iron-ore deposits were first mined in significant quantities during the last years of the 19th century. It was high-grade, naturally occurring ore, rich in iron and wildly plentiful. “Most of the country’s ore is here,” Przybylski brags. “Without us, the United States could not have participated in World War I or World War II.” Indeed, at its peak, the Range produced one-fourth of the world’s iron, and the region’s deposits were considered so valuable that in 1919, after a new vein was found under Hibbing, the mining company spent $16 million to relocate the entire town. You can still see the old grid, complete with cast-iron street signs, near the rim of the Hull Rust Mine.
Hull Rust is the largest open-pit iron mine in the world, and these days it’s being mined for taconite. A hard, abrasive, flint-like rock, taconite was once considered nearly worthless—a low-grade ore not worth the energy and expense of mining it. In the 1940s, however, mining companies realized that the Range was quickly exhausting its deposits of high-grade ore. In response, University of Minnesota scientists—with help from the mining companies—developed a cost-effective method for extracting and upgrading the ore from taconite. It was a development that essentially saved the iron industry in Minnesota.
To process taconite, explosives blast loose chunks of the rock, which are then taken to nearby processing plants. At the plant, the rock moves from one huge grinder to another. When the taconite has been ground into a fine powder, the iron is separated and rolled into pellets for shipping.
The taconite passes through the plant’s tunnels on conveyor belts. At each transfer point, the movement of the rock sends up massive clouds of dust. Dust collectors are supposed to help clean the air, but even when they’re working properly, there’s always dust—so much that when it isn’t raining or below zero, anyone with seniority asks to work outside, says Przybylski. “There were days in the tunnel you couldn’t see each other.”