July 13: State to fund Iron Range cancer rate study

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2007 - 6:52 PM

A decision to use $100,000 to gather information was welcomed in northern Minnesota but did little to quell lingering resentment.

Northern Minnesota lawmakers and residents were pleased Thursday to hear that state officials finally agreed to spend $100,000 to start studying cancer rates among miners on the Iron Range.

But no one is ready to pat Gov. Tim Pawlenty on the back.

"I don't think the governor is going to get accolades for doing this," said state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. The studies should have been underway long before now, he said.

Bakk and other Iron Rangers are still angry over Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach's decision to hold back information about almost three dozen cancer cases, a delay that prompted calls for her resignation. Pawlenty criticized Mandernach's actions but didn't ask her to quit.

The governor's plan would have Mandernach use about $100,000 from her budget for Health Department and University of Minnesota researchers to design the studies.

The studies would compare the asbestos and taconite dust exposure of miners who contracted mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, and exposure of those who didn't; study the respiratory health of taconite miners; and examine causes of death among miners.

Pawlenty said he will work with lawmakers to fund the studies once they're designed, probably when the Legislature reconvenes next February.

Bakk said he wants the money approved as quickly as possible, either in February or during a special session this fall.

"I don't think we can wait until the end of May" for a budget request to make its way through the usual legislative process, Bakk said. "There's a serious issue here and I don't want it to be used as a bargaining chip. ... I want bipartisan approval to move this ahead."

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor also wants to get the studies started as soon as possible.

Bakk and state Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said the Minnesota Health Department should help design the studies because of the agency's experience with the issue. But Bakk said that in light of the recent controversy, university researchers should take the lead in conducting the research.

"The department has badly failed not only the employees but the employers -- the mines," Bakk said. "There's just a lot of uncertainty up here. Are there health risks? There is no way to determine that right now until the studies are done."

Mary Stodola of Hoyt Lakes is skeptical.

"If they're going to do a study, get it done and over with it and then do something with it and not just put it in a drawer some place," she said.

Stodola's husband worked in the mines for 33 years and has been diagnosed with an asbestosis and is being tested for mesothelioma, a lung cancer normally associated with asbestos.

"I take all of this very personally," said Stodola, who was one of more than 100 people who showed up to question Mandernach at a June hearing on the Iron Range.

"I'm glad someone is finally doing something about this," Stodola said. "But it shouldn't be up to the taxpayers to pay for the study. It should be the mining companies that pay. And we want to see some results."

So does Joe Scholar of Virginia. He worked in the mines for 43 years and has been twice diagnosed with cancer.

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