In 2007, a Minnesota appeals court ruled that the U.S. government no longer had jurisdiction in the case of Northshore Mining Company, and allowed the company to stop monitoring air quality along the North Shore in and around Silver Bay.
Between 1975 and the 2007 ruling, the company operated under a mandate issued by Chief Federal Judge Miles Lord, which required that Northshore reduce and monitor asbestos particles in air emissions in the vicinity of the plant, and switch to a land-based tailings disposal system.
The air quality monitoring compared asbestos fibers, or particles, in the vicinity of the Northshore operation to airborne asbestos fibers in St. Paul as a quality-control standard.
Now, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA, is challenging the 2007 ruling, saying that relaxing air quality emissions standards and testing along the North Shore would be injurious to people’s health in an area that has already severely impacted Minnesota health and safety.
Judge Lord was Chief Federal District Judge for Minnesota for more than 20 years, until his retirement in 1985. He sat on the bench during some of the most heated mining trials, one of which – Reserve Mining – resulted in Lord handing down a landmark ruling that forced Reserve Mining Company to stop dumping its tailings, or waste rock, into Lake Superior.
That ruling was a result of scientists’ findings, of asbestos-like fibers in the rock which leached into air and into the waters of Lake Superior, and from there across the entire Great Lakes watershed.
In its protest, the MPCA used the argument that air quality monitoring will help predict how many individuals in the area succumb to asbestos-specific diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
Asbestosis, a respiratory ailment, is usually acquired only after long exposure to asbestos and results in breathing difficulty, though it is rarely fatal in and of itself. Asbestos related lung and gastrointestinal tumors may or may not be malignant, though many are. Malignant mesothelioma, a unique kind of cancer that attacks mesothelial linings around the lungs, heart and abdominal organs, has a high mortality rate and – because of its long dormancy – generally kills victims within a year of diagnosis.
Northshore Mining officials argue that the air testing mandate is outdated, inaccurate and not needed; the company lobbied for years before 2007 to have the requirement dropped, pointing out that asbestos fiber levels in Silver Bay were consistently below those in St. Paul, the test location.
The MPCA was willing to concede the point, provided Northshore conducted a complete environmental impact review, or EIR, before asking the agency to drop the air testing portion of Northshore’s operational permit.
Northshore objected to the EIR, and in January of 2010, State District Judge Kenneth Sandvik (Two Harbors) sided with Northshore, noting that the MPCA’s requirement was “arbitrary and capricious”, and that the agency had had more than 30 years to justify the testing, control-city standard, and its insistence that the fiber emissions were harmful to human health.
On March 12, the MPCA appealed that decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, unequivocally stating that dropping the monitoring and control-city standard would be a major change in environmental monitoring policy that would endanger unknown numbers of Minnesota residents.
State officials, who are not certain whether the asbestos-like fibers found in hundreds of tests are released during taconite mining near Babbitt, or processing at the plant in Silver Bay, are trying to keep the middle ground, noting that there is still no widely accepted standard for the inherent danger of the fibers and their relationship to the diseases in question.
While the debate rages, University of Minnesota health experts, who have already noted an unusually high rate of serious lung disease among residents in the northern tier of Minnesota counties, are conducting a study of taconite workers.
This huge cohort, which includes both current and former workers, hopes to determine why so many of the area’s individuals have died of mesothelioma.
Sources: Duluth News Tribune, ScienceDirect, AllBusiness.com