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?

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.”

 

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.

Dave Trach, a retired miner.
Portrait by Michael Crouser

Gene Olds and Dave Trach met on the job, at Erie Mining in Eveleth. Trach went to work there in 1957, a few months after the mine opened. Olds started the following year. Back then, the Range had a frontier feel. The work was backbreaking, but the money was good and there was plenty to do on your days off.

Olds and Trach have been friends ever since. They retired on the same day in 1996, and wear identical commemorative gold Seiko watches. At the time they left Erie Mining, they were both 62, and they looked forward to a life of comfortable pensions, more time with their families, and long weekends of hunting together. Olds got a part-time job at a golf course, and Trach poured his energy into the retirees’ branch of the steelworkers union, where, as president of the local, he monitored issues that affected his members.

In 1998, his son, who was also a miner, came back from a union meeting on the East Coast, where members from other parts of the country told him that they were getting free health screenings courtesy of a law firm that handled asbestos-related lawsuits. Intrigued, Trach made some calls and learned that miners often have lung problems that get overlooked or misdiagnosed. It often requires a specialist to detect diseases caused by dust. For decades, he and just about everyone he knew came home caked with dust. He recalls working atop a crane more than 100 feet above the concentrator, where the taconite is made into pellets. “I’d look down and see such clouds of dust that you could barely see the people below,” he says. Now he had learned that the dust might make him sick.

He started talking to friends, urging them to get chest x-rays, which he would then ship to a specialist in Chicago. The news from the specialist was worse than he anticipated. To date, Trach has collected 515 lung
x-rays—286 of which have shown some dust-related diseases: asbestosis, pleural plaques, silicosis, and an array of rare and virulent cancers. “These are guys I worked with, guys I know—and they’re dying. They’re not numbers, they’re people,” he says. “We used to have monthly safety meetings. Never did anybody say anything about asbestos.”

Olds helped Trach with his research when he could. When he encountered other retired miners around town, he’d badger them to call his friend. Olds himself had been nursing a dry cough for years, but it never occurred to him it was anything to worry about. In hindsight, he thinks he just didn’t want to know.

Three years ago, Olds chest x-rays revealed that he had asbestosis. A thick layer of scar tissue prevents his lungs from absorbing enough oxygen when he draws a breath, and from expelling enough carbon dioxide when he exhales. At his last checkup, his lung function didn’t register, a complicated way of saying he can barely breathe. He’s suffocating, slowly.

On a Thursday night in June, some 300 people gathered at the community center in Mountain Iron, six miles west of Eveleth. The town is home to Minntac, the world’s largest taconite-processing plant. The crowd was angry, and as Representative Tom Rukavina gaveled the meeting open, he pleaded for order.

The target of the crowd’s wrath was State Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach. A few days earlier, the Star Tribune had revealed that, for a full year, she had concealed the discovery of 35 new cases of mesothelioma among miners. It was Mandernach’s second appearance at a public hearing since the news broke, but it was clear the lawmakers she’d faced in St. Paul had much shorter memories than the miners.

Dave Trach stepped to the microphone, waving a newspaper. After the first 17 mesothelioma cases were found in 1998, he reminded Mandernach, the Health Department was supposed to carry out a study to get to the bottom of the long-simmering controversy—to figure out if the dust was making people sick. He held up a tattered clipping about the report’s conclusion: The cancers had been caused by sources of asbestos like insulation on pipes and in brake linings. Trach was a member of the panel that was supposed to help the Health Department with the research. He’d gone into it with high hopes, but soon became disillusioned. “All of us knew there had to be more to it than that,” he told Mandernach. “We’ve talked about this for 30-some years and nothing has ever happened.”

 

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.

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