The Minnesota Department of Health’s decision to delay the public release of information regarding the deaths of 35 Iron Range miners reveals a disturbing lack of judgment.
I am also very troubled that the department did not share with me their proposal and inability to secure federal funding to study these mesothelioma-related deaths. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos, and we must promptly respond to this public health crisis that has claimed so many lives.
This is the first I have heard that the Minnesota Department of Health was seeking federal funding to examine the issues of asbestos-related cancer in the mining community. If the department had sought my assistance with this funding request at the very outset, I am confident that, working together with the National Institutes of Health, funds could have been secured for the state to initiate this critical health study.
If they had included the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in their findings, progress might have been made to protect miners from asbestos dust. If they had consulted prominent health researchers at the University of Minnesota, we would know more today about occupational risks related to mining. If the United Steelworkers union were told about the findings, more families would be equipped with knowledge about their own health.
Instead, we have lost precious research time, have lost faith in the Minnesota Department of Health and have potentially lost more lives. When a government agency has information concerning dangers in the workplace, the government has a fundamental responsibility to make that information known to the public. For example, the federal government issued an alert and recall on defective pet food earlier this year, and on contaminated spinach last year – without delay.
I am encouraged that the Minnesota Department of Health has now acknowledged its significant errors in judgment. I congratulate the Iron Range delegation of the Minnesota State Legislature for holding a very important public hearing to get the facts.
With knowledge comes a responsibility to act, and it is imperative that all federal, state and local lawmakers and officials work together to protect our taconite workers. I will work with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control to help the Iron Range delegation and the United Steelworkers of America to obtain funding for a study of asbestos and health issues related to the taconite industry.
Throughout my service in Congress, I have always been committed to ensuring the safety of workers on the Iron Range because this issue is personal for me. My grandfather and father spent their lives working in the Godfrey underground mine near Chisholm. As a young man, I spent summers covered in red ore dust from working in the mines. My former colleague Bruce Vento, who served with me in Congress for 24 years, suffered from mesothelioma before it claimed his life in the year 2000.
The Minnesota Department of Health’s failure to release this information has impacted real people’s lives. Now, we must determine the cause of these mining deaths and make necessary changes in the mining workplace to protect these dedicated workers.