Study to revisit
Health risk assessment, symposium
will examine disputed mining issue
TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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