His hair, combed straight back, is whiter and sparser now, and the creases in his face are more pronounced.
But Miles Lord hasn’t lost any of his old fire.
At 87, he’s still going after Minnesota’s steel and taconite industry, just as he did 33 years ago when, as a federal judge, he issued a landmark environmental ruling against the old Reserve Mining Co.
For the better part of a decade, he has pressed authorities about taconite-related health problems and cancer deaths on the Mesabi Iron Range. In telephone calls to reporters, in testimony and talks with state agencies and officials and even in a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators, he’s found plenty to fault.
He has accused the state Health Department of mishandling an investigation into those deaths, criticized the mining and highway industries for using taconite tailings in roadbeds and blamed legislators and state officials for not aggressively seeking answers.
In a highly publicized flurry last month, politicians and state officials traded accusations and apologies over a state Health Department decision to withhold data about 35 more recent asbestos-related cancer cases.
In some ways, they’re just catching up with Lord, who has long harbored questions about the work that’s been done and who refuses to go away or stay quiet.
“I’m suggesting,” Lord said recently, “it’s a deliberate evasion of the truth.”
Leaning back in a chair in his Chanhassen law office, his elbows out and his fingers forming an arch in front of him, Lord alluded to the courtroom in Minneapolis where he first heard about taconite employees with work-related illnesses.
Those stories, and more recent ones from families of victims, have prompted him to demand steps be taken to learn more about those problems, which include mesothelioma, a fatal form of cancer found almost exclusively in people exposed to asbestos.
In recent years, some critics have discounted Lord as an opportunistic self-promoter. Others call him an important conscience for Minnesota.
“Judge Miles Lord is a champion of the working man in Minnesota and anywhere else,” said Richard Dubovich, of Ham Lake, whose father Steve, a former heavy-equipment operator for Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., on the Range, died three years ago of mesothelioma.
Lord grew up on the Range. He has long considered taconite tailings, a waste product from extracting low-grade iron ore from rocks, and the dust or asbestos-like fibers in them to be a public health hazard. He has called their spread across northern Minnesota an unfolding catastrophe, and has urged greater scrutiny of newer taconite projects and expansions.
Taconite must be ground into a fine powder to extract the iron. That dust, Lord said, is a killer, insinuating itself all across the north and beyond, settling to Earth far from the mines and factories.
“I think it’s going to be a problem forever,” Lord said. “They have appropriated northern Minnesota and made it into a death trap.”
A boxer in his youth, Lord went on to be a state attorney general, U.S. attorney and chief judge of the U.S. District Court. He acquired an activist reputation years ago.
Lord blistered Reserve Mining in 1974 for dumping taconite waste into Lake Superior, an early instance of government forcing industry to stop polluting the environment. Ten years later, he accused A.H. Robins Co., manufacturer of the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device, of “planting instruments of death, mutilation and disease” in thousands of women.
In his environmental ruling, he ordered Reserve to stop dumping tens of thousands of tons of taconite tailings a day into the lake. The company fought it for years, but another judge eventually upheld Lord and the company was forced to funnel the tailings, which contained asbestos-like fibers, to an on-land pond.
“He was thoroughly educated on the dangers of the asbestos fibers when he was presiding over the trial and clearly was convinced of the health risk involved,” said Chuck Dayton, a longtime lawyer on environmental issues.
Lord served another decade on the bench before stepping down in 1985 to work in a private law practice with his children.
“I didn’t want to be a judge anymore,” he said, adding, “My kids were all practicing law. I wanted to join them.”
QUEST FOR ANSWERS
Four years ago, Lord talked to Pawlenty about his taconite concerns. Two years ago, he sent the governor a 17-page letter saying the state wasn’t doing enough to find out why workers were getting sick. He never got a response, but he hasn’t budged from the points he made in the letter.
In it, he:
• Accused the Health Department of inadequately investigating asbestos-related deaths. In its study of 17 mineworkers with mesothelioma, he said, the department steered its focus from taconite asbestiform particles and shifted the blame to commercial asbestos. The department conceded it didn’t look at potential exposure to taconite dust and concluded the cases could be accounted for by exposure to commercial asbestos.
Lord said the investigation never compared victims to lists of former workers or asked where victims lived and worked.
“How can you have an occupational study without saying where a person worked?” he asked. “And how can you have an epidemiological study surrounding asbestos plants without saying where people lived?”
Chastised the mining and highway industries for using waste taconite tailings in roadbeds in northern Minnesota. Despite questions about safety, tailings from the West Range have been used in road construction since 1978. East Range tailings have been restricted since 1983. More recently, proposals have been floated to ship the West Range material to the Twin Cities and elsewhere to address a growing shortage of aggregate. That, Lord said, would spread the problem and eventually would make it harder to pin any blame for health problems on mining companies.
In 2003, the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota-Duluth concluded that West Range tailings don’t contain the same asbestos-like fibers found in East Range tailings.
“I think taconite tailings, if they show no adverse health effects, should be used,” said Craig Pagel, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, a trade organization representing six mines and hundreds of vendors that supply products and services to them.
Lord, however, contends too many unanswered questions remain about West Range tailings.
“The litigation against Reserve Mining brought Minnesota national recognition as a leader in the protection of its environment and its citizenry,” Lord wrote to Pawlenty. “But, today, state and federal agencies responsible for these public health issues have been so influenced by the steel companies that they have ignored the problem.”
Pagel said the mining industry has cooperated with past studies of miners’ health problems and will continue to do so. He added the companies have taken steps to reduce taconite dust, not only in the mines but in the production process.
Lord stands by the accusations.
“Let them tell me what I have said that is not true and establish it by scientific evidence,” he said, adding, “They won’t come within a mile of that.”
‘FOR THE GOOD OF MY COUNTRY’
It’s not clear how much Lord’s advocacy has changed things. But others, even those who don’t agree with him, credit him with keeping the issue alive.
“He has obviously kept part of the issue in the forefront of people’s discussions,” said Larry Zanko, a research fellow with the Natural Resources Research Institute.
“I think that his stature as a former federal judge and well-known figure is helpful on the issu
e,” said Dayton, the environmental lawyer.
Before the recent brouhaha over hiding cancer data, the Health Department had been studying whether taconite dust and fibers could cause asbestosis or mesothelioma.
After concluding in 2003 that 17 taconite miners had died of mesothelioma, it announced in March that 35 more had died between 2003 and 2006. Then, under heavy criticism for delaying that announcement for a year, its commissioner apologized. The department also disclosed six more deaths, bringing the known total to 58.
Pawlenty recently ordered the department to work with the University of Minnesota, a decision Lord endorses only because the university’s School of Public Health will take the lead role.
Jeff Mandel, an associate professor in the school’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences, said data highlighted by Lord would be sought immediately.
“I think his concerns would be addressed by the approach we are using,” Mandel said.
Lord said he spends 10 hours a month without pay on taconite-related issues. He’d devote more time if his wife, Maxine, and family would let him.
Asked why, Lord said, “I’m doing it for the same reason I’ve done everything all my life – for the good of my country.”
As the investigation moves ahead, he said, he’s sure of one thing: The numbers of victims will grow, likely by a lot. “For every mesothelioma case, the evidence is there are dozens or hundreds of other types of cancer,” Lord said.
“We haven’t begun to find out how many cases are up there.”