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Asbestos confirmed in Penokee Range proposed iron ore site
A scientist who disputed the finding of asbestos-like minerals in the Penokees says the difference is over the mineral type, but those minerals still have asbestos-like fibers. Mike Simonson reports.
As Northland College Geoscientist Tom Fitz says, it’s all about the rocks.
But the debate is about long, slender, flexible fibers in those rocks first identified at the mining site last year by the Department of Natural Resources as asbestiform. Then in October, Fitz discovered large amounts at one site within the mine area.
Examinations by scientists at UW-Madison and St. Lawrence University agreed that the fiber is asbestiform. Asbestos fibers are linked to mesothelioma, an aggressive lung cancer that has no cure. That makes busting up the rocks in at least one area of the open pit iron ore mine a potential public health threat.
Still, Gogebic Taconite insisted everyone was jumping to conclusions. But in December, the DNR’s Mining spokeswoman Ann Coakley says the science proves it.
"They maintain in their plans that there are not asbestiform minerals in the area. We know that there are because we ourselves tested a sample and have the results back.”
Then in January, Milwaukee-based conservative group Media Trackers reported that University of Minnesota-Duluth lab scientist Bryan Bandli disputed the findings, saying it was a different mineral.
But Media Tracker’s Brian Sikma never mentioned in his report that mineral can also be asbestiform. And a Wisconsin Public Radio open records request to UMD indicated Sikma knew that, telling Bandli in an email that it is “…likely an asbestiform but not grunerite. Is that correct?”.
“Well, that’s a matter then of…there’s all kinds of emails…we wrote the story. We stand by the story and if Bandli comes out and has his own interesting research that now says it’s asbestiform, then certainly that’s an interesting story and should be reported upon, certainly.”
WPR sent pictures of slides to the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Division, where a researcher said not only can both minerals contain asbestos, but these slides show slender, long, flexible fibers. Thus the mineral type makes no difference and can be a public health threat.
Although Bandli refused to comment on his findings to other media saying he was quote "gun shy", WPR sent him the CDC’s comments and asked if he agreed. He says he does but more study is needed to determine public health impacts.
But Media Trackers did accuse Geoscientist Tom Fitz of quote “jumping to conclusions" with “evangelistic fervor”. Fitz likes to think this isn’t a case of denying the science.
“I sure hope not. I wonder if it has been an effort to discredit the existing science. Yeah. I have wondered that. I don’t know. I hope not. You know, because it is what it is no matter who is looking at it. It’s an asbestiform amphibole. It doesn’t matter who’s looking at it, it is in the rock and it’s potentially a health hazard.”
But mine opponent Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins thinks GTAC and Media Trackers are playing what he calls a dangerous PR game.
“The people up here, the local residents, do not want this environmental carnage to happen. And the mining company understands that. So, staying away from the real talk about the dangers and destruction and the death and sickness that comes from this kind of thing is the name of the game.”
As for GTAC, they told the DNR that quote “Our position remains that asbestiform material is unlikely to be present in the reserve”. But GTAC spokesman Bob Seitz says in the end, they’ll have to abide by the science.
“And so, nobody’s going to start mining while this is in question.”
He says GTAC will have to prove they can mine the minerals safely before getting a permit.
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