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 2 of 3)At Hibbing Taconite, there was a constant struggle to get the company to maintain the dust collectors, says Al Caligiuri, a retired miner who served on the union safety committee at the plant for 26 years. Fixing one meant shutting down the production line for hours, and everyone was under tremendous pressure to keep the line going. “You have quotas and production targets to meet,” he says. If workers on one shift dug in their heels and shut down the line, guys on the next shift were apt to start it back up, whether the collectors were fixed or not.
Technically, miners had the right to refuse to do anything they judged unsafe. In practice, anyone who threw a wrench in the works could anticipate hazing. The pressure to ignore the dust maddened Caligiuri. “I said to the supervisor once, ‘I want to put a switch on that collector so that when it goes down, the belt goes down,’” he recalls.
It didn’t help that the respirators miners were supposed to wear were uncomfortable and, on cold days, inoperable. If the flange that made the mask work froze open, the air went unfiltered. If it froze shut, a miner couldn’t breathe. “Condensation runs down your face,” says Caligiuri. “You can’t talk, so you end up taking it off because you have to talk.”
Six years ago, Przybylski noticed that he was having problems working while wearing a respirator—and that he was having trouble breathing even while not wearing it. “Climbing a flight of stairs was like climbing two, two-and-a-half flights,” he says.
He ended up at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors found a litany of respiratory ailments: emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, silicosis. The doctors asked if he wanted to file a worker’s compensation claim, but warned him that he’d have to argue his case. Though the air in the mine could have contributed to his illnesses, his condition could, at least in part, be blamed on his smoking.
Przybylski was angry. He had long believed that his exposure to the dust might make him sick, and he had spent years agitating for little changes he thought would make a difference in dealing with it. He had once spent weeks badgering supervisors into shutting the line down so he could move a poorly positioned collector. The change worked so well that higher-ups allowed him move the others.
Though he was quicker than most of his coworkers to raise hell when he thought miners were being mistreated, he knew he didn’t have the stomach to fight the company over the source of his various maladies. He was already overwhelmed trying to take care of Eileen. He had been on the job 26 years. If he could ride out a couple of years on disability, he’d be eligible for Medicare and could retire with a decent pension.
The first full-scale taconite processing facility, Reserve Mining Company, opened in 1955 in Silver Bay. The taconite itself was mined in Babbitt and then shipped 50 miles east to the new plant. Separating iron ore from taconite rock creates a significant amount of waste. Each day, Reserve Mining would dump 67,000 tons of tailings into Lake Superior, with predictable results. Within a few years of the plant’s opening, sportsmen and naturalists began complaining that lake water around Silver Bay was a peculiar shade of green. Around the same time, asbestos fibers were found in Duluth’s drinking water, which is drawn from the lake. Scientists blamed the taconite tailings for both.
In 1972, a group of plaintiffs, led by the U.S. Justice Department and the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, took Reserve Mining to court, arguing that the company had violated a federal law that prohibited the dumping of harmful material into interstate waters. Government scientists argued that the pollution was caused by an uncommon—but especially dangerous—form of asbestos found in taconite mined from the eastern part of the Iron Range. They asked the judge, Miles Lord, to order Reserve Mining to dump its tailings on land, rather than in the lake, and to take steps to keep the asbestos out of the air. For its part, Reserve Mining never conceded that the tailings contained asbestos.
The trial took eight-and-half months, generated 18,500 pages of testimony, and made Lord a household name. In the end, the judge sided with the states, but the controversy persisted. Stories about people suffering from strange lung ailments circulated among Range residents for years. In the two decades following the case, however, nine studies were conducted. None proved conclusive. Mining companies funded some of the reports, others were limited in scope. The timing of the studies was another factor: Many of the diseases caused by asbestos take 20 to 50 years to develop.
Then, in 1998, the state Health Department reported an alarming statistic. Over the previous nine years, 17 miners had contracted mesothelioma.
The data wasn’t just troubling, it was confounding: Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that usually affects the lining of the lungs—and is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. Yet for decades, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had been testing the air in Iron Range mines for toxins; they had never found the presence of asbestos. In 1999, however, a possible explanation for a link arrived from an unlikely locale: Libby, Montana. Libby is home to the country’s largest and oldest vermiculite mine. Vermiculite contains asbestos, and over the years, more than 200 Libby residents have died—and thousands taken ill—from asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma. But federal inspectors had never found asbestos. Later, an investigation determined the reason for the oversight: the feds had been looking with microscopes that were too weak to see asbestos fibers. When inspectors switched to more powerful microscopes, they detected the asbestos.
In 2001, when investigators began using the same kind of microscopes at the old Reserve Mining site in Silver Bay, they detected airborne asbestos there as well.