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Great Lakes Article:

Study to revisit taconite tailings
Health risk assessment, symposium will examine disputed mining issue


BIWABIK - One of the most controversial, contentious and litigated issues in the history of taconite mining is about to resurface.

In the spring, the state Department of Health will undertake a health risk assessment of mineral fibers contained in taconite tailings produced at taconite mines on the eastern end of the Iron Range. A three-day symposium in the Twin Cities, featuring mineral experts from throughout the world, will precede the health risk assessment.

"It's really just to bring science forward," Jean Dolensek, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board mining program coordinator, said Thursday at a meeting of the Minnesota Blue Ribbon Committee on Mining at Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort. "We may find that we are where we were 25 years ago."

Taconite tailings are a waste product derived from the production of taconite pellets.

The mineralogical makeup of taconite tailings from East Range mines -- specifically the former Reserve Mining Co. and portions of the former LTV Steel Mining Co. -- have stirred controversy for years.

After getting state approval in 1947, Reserve Mining Co. began disposing taconite tailings in Lake Superior at its Silver Bay processing plant in 1955.

However, in 1972, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, the United States government and environmental groups filed a complaint alleging that the discharge violated refuse and federal water pollution laws.

On April 20, 1974, after a lengthy and highly visible court battle, U.S. District Court Judge Miles Lord concluded that Reserve's discharge into Lake Superior violated federal and state pollution laws and ordered Reserve Mining Co. to halt the disposal of taconite tailings into the lake. At the time, many Northland residents feared that mineral fibers within the tailings would cause health problems.

The case, which was in trial for 139 days over a nine-month period, called 100 witnesses and featured 1,600 exhibits. It arguably remains one of the taconite industry's most emotional issues.

Since Lord's decision, and under the ownership of different mining companies, tailings produced at the plant have been disposed at Milepost Seven, an on-land containment facility on the North Shore. Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., which now owns the mine and processing plant, plans to continue to dispose of the tailings on land.

However, last year, a state Department of Natural Resources subcommittee of the Minnesota Blue Ribbon Committee on Mining suggested revisiting the issue.

Taconite tailings from East Range mines contain a different mineralization than tailings from other Iron Range taconite mines.

If the tailings from the two East Range mines were found to be usable as aggregate, or crushed rock, it would open up economic development opportunities to use tailings in road building or for other uses. However, that's not what the symposium and risk assessment is aimed at, Dolensek said.

"This is just a scientific symposium to bring forward science from the last 25 years," Dolensek said. "We all raise our children up here. The last thing we want to do, for the sake of economic development, is do something that would affect our lives."

Before Lord's decision, taconite tailings from East Range mines were used in sidewalk construction, house foundations, road building and winter sanding.

But since Lord's decision, taconite tailings from parts of the former LTV Steel Mining Co. and the former Reserve Mining Co. Peter Mitchell Mine in Babbitt can only be used on-site at the two mines.

For years, tailings from other mines on the West Range have been used in road construction, asphalt mixes and winter road sanding.

Scientists who analyzed tailings minerals during the Reserve Mining Co. controversy say they hope the symposium and risk assessment will be objective, but say a clear answer may not be found.

"I have personal concerns," said Phillip Cook of Duluth, now a senior chemist at the Midcontinent Ecology Division of the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory in Duluth. "I think we have to consider what effect it will have in reopening the controversy. It could be counterproductive for everybody."

Even with an objective study, Cook says there should still be a finding of risk.

"I can't imagine a situation where we would say there's no risk at all," Cook said. "I would be very concerned if we proceeded and said there's no hazard no matter what you do with it."

Gary Glass of Duluth, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist during the Reserve controversy, said he performed studies that found minerals from the tailings in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan water supplies.

"It's kind of neat that we got them out of the lake," Glass said Thursday. "It would certainly be possible to use them in some products, but to do it they would have to destroy the fibers and put them into a product that is safe -- not like ice control."

About $150,000 from the IRRRB, DNR Minerals Coordinating Committee and Minnesota Power will pay for the symposium.

Before the symposium, a six-member scientific committee will review papers and presentations of all the presenters.

The International Environmental Research Foundation, a New York-based scientific research organization that specializes in environmental issues, is helping organize the symposium and will issue a formal report to the state Department of Health.

The symposium will be at a yet-to-be-determined Twin Cities hotel to make travel easier for out-of-state speakers, Dolensek said. She said taconite industry officials aren't involved in planning or setting an agenda for the symposium or health risk assessment. It's not known when the assessment will be complete.

"We need to be careful not to think that this will be the end of all of this controversy," said Chuck Williams, a former Reserve Mining Co. employee and taconite industry executive. "There are people who will believe to their dying breath that people can die from this."

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