Health chief is grilled for four hours

  • Article by: Mark Brunswick
  • Star Tribune
  • June 26, 2007 - 9:37 PM

Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach faced more calls for her resignation and endured blistering criticism from legislators on Tuesday over her decision to withhold information about cancer deaths among northern Minnesota miners.

At times appearing tearful, Mandernach faced almost four hours of questioning about her decision to withhold data concerning the additional miner deaths from the public for a year and to keep the information even from her own staff.

She was also criticized for informing some mining companies of the data before releasing it to the public or to key legislators and for failing to ask the Legislature for additional funding to study the deaths.

At least one legislator renewed a call for Mandernach's resignation. She is expected to face additional peppering at a hearing Thursday night on the Iron Range.

"Commissioner, you've said time and time again you've made a mistake. You didn't tell anybody about it, you ran away. That's beyond a mistake," said Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm. "It's not just a mistake to withhold this information. You had a press release just in case the information leaked. That goes beyond a mistake. That's covering up."

Mandernach has been under fire since a June 17 Star Tribune story documented the yearlong suppression of research about 35 new cases of mesothelioma among Iron Range miners who died of the asbestos-related cancer.

At a joint legislative hearing on Tuesday, she again apologized for her actions and said it was a mistake to withhold the information. But she said her intent was to obtain complete information about the new deaths before going public.

"I did not want to compound the frustrations of the past by not having a plan for the future," she said.

She said she had no intention of resigning, and a spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he would not ask her to step down.

"The idea is, we need to get to the bottom of this. We need to get the answers so we can inform the miners about what it is about their work in the mine and mesothelioma. What's valid, what's not and then be able to put measures in place," Mandernach said after the hearing.

Decades of concern, debate

The Health Department discovered in early 2006 that the 35 miners were stricken with mesothelioma between 1997 and 2005. That was twice as many miner cancer cases as discovered in the previous nine-year period. But Mandernach ordered the data suppressed while additional research was planned and federal funding for studies was sought. The department eventually announced two more planned studies, and the news of the 35 miners, in March of this year.

The issue of mesothelioma has been part of a contentious debate for three decades, particularly on the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota, where mining jobs are often the highest-paying opportunities in the region but also present a deadly threat years after retirement.

Mesothelioma, which is always fatal, typically occurs in the lung lining. It develops decades after exposure to the asbestos fibers.

The issue gets personal quickly. Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has a son working in the mines. His son, an engineer, has a new wife who washes his dusty work clothes.

"I don't want him dead before me," Bakk said, his voice quivering. "Some young person who wants to go to work in that industry needs to know what the occupational hazards are."

The department was also criticized for releasing the information first to representatives from Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., which mines and processes ore. Bakk, the chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee, said he was informed of the release of the study by a high-level official of the company, renewing long-held suspicions about company collusion on the cancer studies.

A Health Department liaison in Pawlenty's office said the governor learned about the study following a Feb. 15 briefing for his staff. But Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, suggested Pawlenty's office should have been more aware of the significant impact on keeping the study under wraps.

"I don't know if you are taking a hit for the governor here or you made the decision. I hope you do decide to resign after this hearing," Tomassoni told Mandernach.

Secrecy alleged

The hearing expanded beyond the handling of the miners' deaths to examine Mandernach's managerial style. One Health Department manager testified that she was criticized for revealing too much in e-mails and that she was told by her immediate supervisor and by Mandernach to limit what she put in writing. Mandernach also acknowledged that many employees in the Health Department were kept in the dark about the study.

"You'd think this was the CIA rather than the Health Department," Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who chaired the hearing, told Mandernach. "Your department is putting together the action plan. You won't even share with your own staff that these people died?"

Mandernach said after the hearing that she did not believe the department operated in secrecy but would make an effort to be more collaborative.

"That was disturbing to hear and an allegation I'm not comfortable with. It begs me going back and having some discussions," she said.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636 •

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