Mountain Iron, Minn. – As 300 Iron Range residents filled the Mountain Iron Community Center, tension between residents and government officials continued to mount in response to delays regarding the reporting of cancer information by state health officials.
This was the second hearing regarding Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach who has been accused by residents and state legislators of hiding vital information regarding death rates of Iron Range miners from the rare cancer mesothelioma.
Mandernach, who was present at the hearing, defended the year-long delay of reporting the deaths of 35 additional miners by asserting that the information was withheld because she wanted more time to examine additional factors.
She was constantly on the defensive as a panel featuring 16 members of the Minnesota Legislature criticized her for the delay.
"It's like talking to a wall," said Senator Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. "You're not listening, not doing what we ask you to do – that's why there's no confidence in you or your department."
She apologized for the "error in judgement" but has refused to resign from her position despite calls for her resignation from Iron Range legislators. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who appointed Mandernach in Feb. 2003, has said he stands by the embattled commissioner.
The report was released in 2003 and claimed that 17 miners had died from mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by the buildup of asbestos fibers in the lungs. In 2004 it was revealed that further examination added another 35 deaths.
Since the revelation about the delay was made public last month, Mandernach has been under fire. She drew even more criticism after she again proposed asking for federal funds to finance a more comprehensive study.
A letter from Rep. Jim Oberstar, DLF-Minn. who represents the area as part of Minnesota's 8th Congressional District said that her funding request made earlier in the week was the first time he was aware of the department of health seeking federal funds
Another legislator then criticized the commissioner for allowing two legislative sessions to pass before making the request.
The panel later said that they had asked the University of Minnesota to begin studies regarding workers because they could not wait any longer.
Two professors from the university were in attendance and said they would be able to start immediately and would work with MDH as they seek answers regarding the high death rates.
Three studies have been proposed with each expected to last between one and five years.
However the proposed studies were seen as token gestures toward a problem claiming the lives of many Iron Range workers.
David Trach, president of USW Soar, said that earlier studies that hinted at a possible problem did not receive a sufficient response in relation to the recent studies.
"In 1999 we had … screenings and of 480 tested, 286 were found to have lung problems from asbestos-like fibers," said Trach during the hearing. "We retirees are already contaminated, so our concerns are with those still working."
As testimony ended residents and legislators were still without answers to the growing problem. However action of some kind will have to be taken if future generations are to be spared from the same problem.