When federal air tests found elevated levels of asbestos last September at the Northshore Mining Co. in Silver Bay, Minn., mine safety officials couldn’t issue fines or order safety improvements.
New, stricter rules on asbestos in mines remain stalled, 20 months after being proposed. And under the current airborne asbestos limit, which is 20 times higher than the limit for other industries, Northshore’s processing plant is not in violation.
Now, regulators find themselves under renewed pressure to deal with dusty conditions in iron mining. This week, the state Health Department reported that 52 male Iron Range miners died of mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by inhaling asbestos, from 1988 to 2005.
In a statement, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) said it “is naturally concerned about the dozens of deaths that have occurred among miners in the Iron Range over the past 10 years.” The agency said it is working with mine operators to voluntarily reduce worker exposures.
That’s not good enough, said J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the federal mine safety agency during the Clinton administration and says mine asbestos regulations should have been strengthened long ago.
“We have a regulatory system in this country that with regard to safety and health is broken,” said McAteer, who blamed rule-making delays on cumbersome, multilayered review requirements. “We doom people even when we know the standard is too low, as we did in the case of asbestos materials.”
Fibers in the air
The needle-like fibers have repeatedly been detected at the Silver Bay processing plant since 2003, after the agency enhanced its testing program. The only other Iron Range facility that showed an elevated level in tests was Northshore’s Babbitt mine in 2003. Ten subsequent samplings in Babbitt were below the proposed safety threshold, the federal data show.
Regulators currently can’t use the threat of fines to force companies to reduce asbestos levels below the new standard. That isn’t about to change anytime soon. Patricia Silvey, director of MSHA’s regulations office, said the agency is focused on drafting safety regulations in response to two West Virginia coal mine accidents last year that killed 13 workers. She wasn’t sure the new asbestos rules will be approved this year.
Northshore Mining questions the need for stricter standards. Dana Byrne, a spokesman for its owner, Cleveland Cliffs Inc., said he believes the tested samples, though labeled asbestos in federal reports, contain non-asbestos fragments that don’t pose a health risk. He said the company is working with another federal agency on a test to prove the fibers are not asbestos and therefore not subject to the stricter limits.
Steven Richetta, the Duluth-based district manager of the mine safety agency, declined to be interviewed about the test results. The agency’s headquarters said in a statement that Northshore has been notified in writing when test results exceed the proposed asbestos standard, and officials have counseled miners and operators about how to reduce exposure. When the Silver Bay plant exceeded a quartz dust standard, it improved control measures, the statement said.
Without an approved new standard, the agency lacks the legal clout to force companies to make changes, such as adding filters or redesigning workplaces to wall off workers from harmful dust, said McAteer, who headed the mine agency until 2000. “Without the legal hook, you are left in effect with the bully pulpit to cajole these people into compliance,” he added.
Mike Wright, who oversees worker safety issues for the United Steelworkers, said the cumbersome rule-making process favors those who oppose new standards. Adding to the delays is a presidential administration that “generally has been opposed to new standards for anything,” he added.
Instead, more studies
Though new asbestos standards remain in limbo, Minnesota soon could blossom with asbestos research.
The Health Department, in response to the rising mesothelioma death toll among miners, announced it will spend at least $1.2 million on two studies of asbestos exposure. Separately, Cleveland-Cliffs said it will pay at least $1 million to an independent researcher, approved by the Health Department, to study health risks of mining among its current and former workers. The studies are expected to take several years.
Taconite mining has been the subject of asbestos studies since 1972, when Northshore’s predecessor, Reserve Mining, began dumping into Lake Superior mine tailings containing asbestos-like fibers. That practice soon stopped by court order, but the debate over what’s in taconite dust has raged ever since.
In 2003, the Health Department concluded that commercial asbestos, such as was used to wrap pipes and boilers, was more likely the cause of mesothelioma in 17 miners who died between 1988 and 1997. The study did not rule out taconite dust as a source, and the new study that the department announced this week aims to look more closely at dust exposure and miners’ health.
Mesothelioma, a cancer that strikes the lung lining, is hard to study because it takes up to 40 years to develop.