ST.PAUL – Govenor, Tim Pawlenty backed up Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach on Wednesday, even as Iron Range lawmakers called for her resignation over the yearlong delay in the release of data on nearly three dozen cancer cases among miners.
The data came out in March, but the delay wasn't reported until this week.
Iron Range legislators are incensed, and two of them – Rep. Tom Rukavina and Sen. David Tomassoni – held a news conference outside Pawlenty's office to call for her resignation. They were joined by Sen. John Marty, who heads a Senate health policy committee.
Health Department research discovered 35 cases of a rare lung cancer linked among miners in March 2006 – double the number of mesothelioma cases previously identified. Union leaders and Iron Range politicians said the 4,000 current miners should have been told sooner about the new findings. Iron Rangers have long worried about health problems related to the mining industry.
"If it had been known a year ago we could have got a jump start on this," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, one of nine lawmakers to push for Mandernach's resignation. "I mean, these are people's lives on the line, and to delay it for a year makes no sense. I don't understand."
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said Mandernach shouldn't have waited a year to release the findings. McClung said she made an "error in judgment" but it doesn't mean she should lose her job.
"Commissioner Mandernach has apologized. She has admitted that in retrospect they should have released this information sooner. And in light of her years of service as health commissioner and looking at the totality of her public service, we do not believe this rises to the level of termination," McClung said.
Pawlenty appointed Mandernach to her $108,400-a-year position in 2003. Before that, she headed a health center in Moose Lake.
McClung said Pawlenty's chief of staff, Matt Kramer, relayed the concerns about the delayed data release to Mandernach in a phone call, but the governor hasn't spoken with her directly.
Marty has asked Mandernach to testify about the cancer data before his Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee. Both Marty and McClung said they expect Mandernach to appear at a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing.
Mandernach initially said the department needed time to plan more studies.
Four years ago, a much-disputed Health Department study linked the mesothelioma cases known at the time to exposure to commercial asbestos in mining equipment. But miners and others have been pushing for more study of taconite dust produced by mining and processing.
Identifying the source of the cancer is critical so workers can be screened and precautions taken, said Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.
"It's very important to us and the people of the Iron Range, the workers who are working up there, to find out what the cause is of this disease," he said.
Rukavina questioned whether Mandernach or someone above her made the call to sit on the new cancer data. McClung said the governor's office didn't know the Health Department waited to release the information, and didn't agree with the decision.