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Miner Problem

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?

Miner Problem
Photo by Michael Crouser
Retired miner Sam Ricker.

(page 3 of 3)

The Health Department was supposed to study the broader picture, Mandernach conceded, but quit before it could complete the job. “The enabling legislation was repealed,” she explained. “We did not look at exposure to taconite dust. We had always intended that to be the next step.”

What she didn’t say was telling. Further explanation might have meant pointing fingers. In 2002, legislative leaders Tim Pawlenty and Roger Moe, locked in a close race for governor, persuaded the legislature to cut $106.2 million from health- and human-services budgets. The lung-health study was a victim of the budget slashing.

The Health Department announced plans to publish the incomplete data it had already compiled. When the study was finally released, in 2003, the fact that it hadn’t actually confronted the larger questions was buried in the fine print: “This study does not answer many of the questions about the health and safety of iron miners in Minnesota that have been raised over many decades,” the final document cautioned.

Between 1997 and 2003, demand from China drove up the price of steel. The old Reserve Mining site was purchased and put back in service by Cleveland-Cliffs, which wanted to expand it. In March 2006, when the company applied for a permit, the Health Department updated its tally of mesothelioma cases among miners. The new data showed that an additional 35 cases had been diagnosed through 2005, bringing the total number of mesothelioma deaths on the Iron Range to 52. (Additional data gathered since 2005 would quickly raise that number to 58.) The potential ramifications were staggering. Mesothelioma is what’s called a sentinel disease: For every person diagnosed there are probably dozens, or even hundreds, who are suffering from related, and more common, diseases: emphysema, asbestosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Health Department researchers instantly recognized trouble. According to documents later released to state Senator John Marty under Minnesota’s Data Practices Act, the researchers wanted to announce the news right away. “These unresolved questions may point to a public and occupational health concern of major dimensions,” warned one department memo.

Mandernach didn’t agree. She told staff she wanted to release the new number when she could also announce a plan to finally determine the causes and extent of the problem. But the department had already sought and been denied federal money to revive the studies, according to materials prepared to help her brief the governor. “The lack of federal funding will lead to questions about state funding that, as you know, are quite sensitive,” one of the memos warned.

Prior to her meeting with the public, department staff prepared sample questions they thought the commissioner should expect: “Why do you need to wait for federal funding to begin work on the mesothelioma study?” “Given the potential significance of this issue for people who still work in the industry, why wasn’t this included in the governor’s budget?”

Even given months to come up with responses, when those questions were finally asked, Mandernach had no reply. “Listening to your stories, your frustration, I do apologize,” she stammered at the Mountain Iron hearing in June. “My intention was to release the news along with a plan to answer the question, What’s the actual cause of lung disease on the Iron Range?”

On August 21, while the public’s attention was focused on the I-35W bridge collapse, Mandernach announced her resignation. To Trach, Przybylski, and others paying attention to the issue, she was a scapegoat. As far as they’re concerned, the governor should’ve been the one answering questions.

Representative Tom Rukavina.
Portrait by Michael Crouser

Rukavina agrees. Mandernach told legislators that she met with someone on the governor’s staff about the new mesothelioma cases in October 2006, and briefed the governor “fully” in February 2007. “It burns my ass, to be quite frank,” says Rukavina. “I still believe the governor knew about it the whole time.” (Adding insult to injury, Health Department officials told Cleveland-Cliffs executives the news a week before they released it to the public.)

In June, two days before the hearing on the Iron Range, Rukavina called epidemiologists at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. If he could get state money to revive the study the Health Department never finished, he asked, could they get all the answers?

The researchers said that no single investigation would do. Instead, they proposed to conduct several studies in two broad categories. They would tally the causes of death for 72,000 miners, take a comprehensive look at the mesothelioma cases, and screen current and former miners and their spouses to learn what diseases they’re suffering. “If we understand all three of those, we’ll have a pretty good idea what role mining plays in an excess of mesotheliomas and in a whole host of other diseases,” says Jeffrey Mandel, MD, who has followed the issue for years.

Meantime, the U’s Natural Resources Research Institute would analyze dust and ore samples to determine which taconite deposits contain hazards, how much of the dust is in the overall environment in Iron Range communities, and how to minimize exposure.

The U has the money to get things rolling, but researchers will need $3 million to $5 million of state funding to complete it. If they don’t end up with enough money to do things right, Mandel says, the school won’t do it. “This is a sizeable issue that needs to be addressed now,” he says. “We have over four times as many deaths from mesothelioma than we do from the bridge collapse.

“The concern in the community is, does it go beyond miners?”

Eileen Przybylski’s grave is out on the edge of town, in a small cemetery lined with ornate, cast-iron street lights and cypress trees. Przybylski had Eileen’s body cremated and some of her ashes buried here, under a planter trailing a geranium.

The cemetery is wedged between a new Lowe’s and a movie theater. Przybylski devotes a considerable amount of his time to an ad hoc campaign to beautify the graveyard. He doesn’t want it look so much like overlooked acreage behind some parking lots. He talked Lowe’s into donating $2,300 worth of trees to line the little road between the store and the plots. Though he now has great difficulty breathing—the next step is an oxygen tank—he still came out the day they planted the trees and helped, wheezing all the while. “Use it or lose it,” the doctor told him, and Przybylski took heed.

He plans to leave Hibbing altogether as soon as he can sell the house where he lived with Eileen. The Range is enjoying an economic renaissance of sorts. The new ore-to-steel plant is going up a few miles to the west, a project that will mean temporary jobs for 2,000 construction workers and permanent ones for 700 miners. Przybylski figures all this will create a housing shortage.

It’s not like Przybylski would be leaving Eileen behind. He sprinkled the rest of her ashes around the country in places she loved to visit—some of them warmer and drier and no doubt better for his lungs. Part of him regrets not going sooner.
“I would have walked away from that job out at Hibbing Taconite for her,” he says. “She was too good for me, really.”

Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Jan 23, 2008 05:27 pm
 Posted by  Paul J P

Planting of the trees at the Maple Hill Cemetery was a joint proposal that was sent from the Ad Hoc committee; and approved by the Hibbing City Council. The Council approved funds for the purchase of the plant and Lowe's stepped forward and offered to provide the plants at their cost. A number of Lowe's employees also participated in the planting of the trees.

Paul J Przybylski

Jan 30, 2008 06:35 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I read the Miner Problem article in the Feb. issue. It's an excellent story, and very well written!

I remember sometime back in the early 1970's, many newscasts spoke of these taconite tailings being dumped into Lake Superior by Reserve.

However, they always referred to the pollution substance as "Cummingtonite", which I believe is some sort of silicate.

Is Cummingtonite the same pollution substance as is referred to in the "Miner Problem" article, or, is it yet some other faction which 70's newscasts were referring to?

Thank you.

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