June 29: Iron Rangers sound off

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2007 - 10:29 PM

Enraged over the health chief's handling of information about cancer deaths, they said apologies were not enough.

MOUNTAIN IRON, MINN. - Embattled Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach continued Thursday to try to atone for her suppression of information on cancer deaths related to taconite mining.

At an emotional public hearing here, she pledged to Iron Range miners and legislators that her department would exhaustively study both the industry's health risks and its own public information policies.

But when she then revealed that her plan for funding the studies was to continue to apply for federal grants, Democratic legislators erupted with fresh proclamations that the Republican commissioner and her department have lost all credibility.

Instead, they endorsed a proposal by Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, to have the University of Minnesota lead the studies using state emergency funds.

"You have absolutely no idea whether you'll get those federal funds," Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said during the special joint legislative committee meeting. "I'm shocked. I cannot believe you didn't say that you intend to go to the governor and ask for a special session [of the Legislature]."

Two of the lawmakers said they've now given up trying to persuade Mandernach to resign, and they instead asked her to pledge to get the Health Department to cooperate with the university's School of Public Health. The school's dean, John Finnegan, attended the hearing and said the school is prepared to lead the studies.

Mandernach has been under fire since a June 17 Star Tribune story documented her yearlong suppression of research that revealed 35 new deaths of miners from mesothelioma, a lung cancer normally associated with asbestos.

Health officials have long known of a possible link between mines on the eastern Iron Range and what appeared to be an abnormally high number of deaths from lung ailments. But the 35 cases identified between 1997 and 2005 were twice as many as discovered in the previous nine-year period.

The hearing began with sometimes emotional testimony from Iron Range residents. "It's too late for us, but it isn't too late for our children and grandchildren to have a better life," said Mary Stodola of Hoyt Lakes, site of the former LTV taconite mine.

Mandernach listened to similar testimony from several people before once again admitting that she was wrong to delay the data's release.

"I especially want to apologize to all of you," Mandernach said, standing to face about 175 audience members seated in rows of folding chairs. "It was a real mistake, and I truly regret it."

A miner in the front row responded loudly: "It's not acceptable!"

Mandernach replied evenly: "It's offered. That's all I can do."

She repeated her explanation given to earlier audiences, that she wanted to wait to release the data until her department had a concrete plan for proceeding with health risk studies and seeking federal funding. The Health Department announced the planned studies, and news of the 35 deaths, in March.

At Thursday's hearing, she said the department is "committed" to getting the new studies underway and end 30 years of uncertainly about whether taconite dust is contributing to the deaths.

But Rukavina responded that most Iron Range residents and many legislators can no longer trust the department to conduct the studies properly or even get the funds to do them. University officials assured him that exhaustive studies can be started now and completed in three to five years. Meanwhile, they said, officials can make recommendations on respirators and other methods of limiting miners' exposure to airborne particles.

He and several other legislators said the Health Department and the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty were irresponsible in not asking the Legislature to appropriate money while it was still in session. Rukavina said that with Pawlenty's support, emergency funds could be released now.

"We're not going to wait another year, Commissioner," Rukavina said. "We're going to go to the governor, and he better support us."

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