MPR file Photo/Bob Kelleher
MOUNTAIN IRON, Minn. - The highly-anticipated results of a 5-year, almost $5 million study by researchers at the University of Minnesota will be released April 12 on the Iron Range.
Researchers have medically tested and interviewed hundreds of current and retired range workers, examining thousands of records going back several decades in an effort to see if there is a link between work in the taconite mines and mesothelioma, a rare cancer linked to asbestos exposure.
"The study is super important because we're dealing with people's lives," current Steel Workers United President Bob Bratulich said in Eveleth, a stone's throw away from a vacant mine. "If something is causing this, whether it's in the rock or the way the rock is being crushed or the way the material is being processed, than we need to know about that so we can fix it."
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, mesothelioma has been linked to 115 deaths on the range in the last 12 years. It has been linked to 43 deaths in the past three years. A department spokesperson says the people referenced may or may not be part of the specific group of mine workers, but early results of the U of M study have found a mesothelioma rate on the Iron Range that is 300 times greater than the rest of the state of Minnesota
Researchers hope to answer a question that's been kicked around for decades up on the range. Is the mesothelioma rate connected to the mines, fibers in the rock, dust or commercial asbestos? Study results may answer those questions, but it's not guaranteed.
Bill and Mary Stodola of Hoyt Lakes are convinced there is a link. Bill worked in a mine down the street from his home for 32 years.
"Bill has been diagnosed with asbestosis of his lungs, he's at 45 percent and 15 percent mesothelioma," Mary explained from the couple's living room. "We'd like to get out of here, but you're not going anywhere."
"This stuff has been going on for so long and the cases are just, there's new cases popping up because it takes years for this stuff to show up for some people," Bill explained, sorting through old photos of his time at the mine.
Researchers say it can often take a number of decades for mesothelioma to show up after initial and prolonged exposure.
Bill's friend and former co-worker Dave Trach has been working with retired steel workers to get them tested. While he doesn't have any health issues himself, he says he knows of at least 60 former workers who have mesothelioma or lung problems, and he says he knows of more than two dozen who may have died from it.
"It affected a lot of families. I knew these guys. I knew these people. It's not like talking about numbers. There's a human being there and it strikes home," Trach said.
There are others who are not quite convinced there is a real link. U of M researchers extended their testing base to include the community of Silver Bay on the North Shore. Mayor Joanne Johnson says almost half her community is employed in the taconite industry. She worked at the local mining company for 14 years, but declined when invited to participate in the study, noting that there have been studies in the past.
"Never have there been any significant findings when all was said and done and I don't feel there will be now either," she told KARE 11.
KARE 11 reached out to a number of mine owners and operators in the northern third of the state. We did receive a response from Cliffs Natural Resources, which has operations in Hibbing, Eveleth and Silver Bay.
The statement reads: "Cliffs has cooperated with Minnesota's Taconite Workers Health Study since its inception by providing access to our operations and employees for the research. We support the study and fact-based results that may provide any long-term guidance to the industry so Cliffs can continue our efforts to protect the health and safety of our employees."
Bratulich, the current union President, also noted that working conditions, precautions and medical testing procedures are much better and more thorough in the current industry when compared to years ago.
Tom Rukavina, a former State Representative who worked in the mines around Virginia before becoming a lawmaker, was instrumental in getting the study started in the early 2000s.
"It was a phenomenal number of how we (the Iron Range) were showing up getting mesothelioma and then the puzzlement turned to anger," Rukavina recalled.
The former legislator and son of a steel workers union leader hopes the final results of the study will give miners some peace of mind.
"We're going to get the truth finally and that's all everybody ever wanted in the end was to get to the truth."
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