Susan Kepler remembers how she “nearly died inside” when she saw her husband’s chest X-ray.
“We were waiting in the exam room, and it was sitting there in an envelope,” said Kepler, a registered nurse, who still weeps at the memory. “I looked at it, and I couldn’t see his left lung at all. I knew something was very, very wrong.”
It was 2003, and Lee Kepler had just retired after working more than 35 years as an electrician in Iron Range taconite mines. And they were building their dream home on a picturesque lake, the place where they would live out their years together.
One year, as it turned out.
In 2004, at age 64, Lee Kepler died of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related lung cancer. He became one of the 52 men whose deaths since 1988 have led the state Health Department to conclude that the rare cancer is killing iron ore miners in significantly greater numbers than previously thought.
The department said last week it will study whether the deaths are linked to asbestos or asbestos-like fibers in iron ore dust, and whether exposure limits are needed. A 2003 study, faulted by mine workers and others, said the cause probably was commercial asbestos used in taconite-plant furnaces and other mining equipment.
While at least 52 men have died, more than 200 miners have filed workers’ compensation claims alleging that working in the taconite mines caused their lung-scarring asbestosis and other lung ailments. Many live with the fear that the fibers and fragments scarring their lungs will someday trigger the latest deadly case of mesothelioma, a process that can take decades.
“Hopefully it never blossoms,” Karl Oberstar Jr., 55, said of his asbestosis, which was detected in a screening arranged by his union in the late 1990s. He worked 31 years as a millwright and mechanic for LTV Steel Mining Co. in Hoyt Lakes.
Oberstar, who lives in Gilbert, remembers dumping bags of dusty asbestos into “a big mixing bowl” while making a fire-resistant paste to seal furnaces. “You could just see the particles everywhere,” he said. “The air never seemed clear.”
Highlighting the fickleness of asbestos exposure, or perhaps of fate, Oberstar’s father, Karl Oberstar Sr., worked 35 years in the same plant and now at age 83 shows no trace of asbestosis, his son says. “We both get tested, and I’m the one who comes up positive,” he said. “A lot of guys have died from lung problems. I have a couple of friends on oxygen right now. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
Dust to dust
During Lee Kepler’s 30 years at Eveleth Mines and five years after that at Inland Steel Mining Co. in Virginia, dirt and dust came with the job, his wife said.
“He came home covered with it,” she said. “He’d blow his nose, and this gray, crummy-looking stuff would come out. He complained to the company at one point, and they finally gave them some respirators, but they clogged up right away. The company told him it was just harmless dust.”
He’d been a jock in Hibbing High School and had always been “vital and full of life,” she said. So, in late 2002, when he complained of weakness and being short of breath, she pestered him to see a doctor.
When the mesothelioma was diagnosed, she said, “I knew he was going to die.”
Still, they fought the disease with every weapon, she said, including two surgeries at the Mayo Clinic, chemotherapy and radiation. At the same time, they proceeded with having their house built, and they hired a lawyer and sued 26 different manufacturers of asbestos-containing products.
“The brake linings of the trucks were asbestos,” she said. “The ceiling tiles in his office had it. It was in the insulation of the wires that he stripped. It was in this paste that they smeared onto the pipes when they built the taconite plant.”
Down to one lung, his life ebbing, he testified in a deposition, recalling all his contact with those products, many of which he knew by name, she said. In the end, multiple companies settled out-of-court, paying the couple enough to support her in retirement and leave something to the three grown children from the previous marriage each had.
His wife said that one of his wishes for his fellow miners, in the end, was that they get their lungs scanned for signs of disease early, to detect tumors as early as possible, when treatment might be more effective.
“It’s something you would never even wish on your worst enemy,” Susan Kepler said as she sifted through pictures of the smiling, robust miner who had been her husband for 29 years.
Lee Kepler died on a fall morning, in the living room of a new house with picture windows that look through the trunks of tall Norway pines to the lake beyond.