A public health disgrace in Minnesota

by Revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

If you’ve ever been to Duluth, Minnesota in the wintertime, at the top of the state on Lake Superior, you know how cold it can get. And if you go another 50 miles up the shore you’ll come to Silver Bay. Also cold. And dangerous in another way. It is a cancer hot spot for perhaps the deadliest cancer we know, mesothelioma.

Silver Bay is in the iron range and was the site of one of the most famous of the early environmental cases, when the Environmental Protection Agency was new and so was the idea of protecting people from an unhealthy environment. The case involved the Reserve Mining Company, the major employer and benefactor of Silver Bay. Reserve Mining had been dumping its mine tailings into the Lake for almost three decades at that point. Tailings are the waste separated from the iron ore by huge crushers. These tailings were clouding the water and, fishermen said, destroying life in the lake. Then it was discovered that the tailings contained asbestiform materials that were getting into the unfiltered drinking water of Duluth and Two Harbors downstream from Silver Bay. Suddenly it was life on land that was also at stake. The case was settled on Appeal after a contentious trial in the 1970s. By the 1980s the the tailings were being disposed on land instead of the Lake (more on the Reserve Mining case in this excellent 2003 report from Minnesota Public Radio). Now the cancer issue has reappeared in the context of some particularly egregious behavior by the leadership of the Minnesota Department of Public Health:

The Minnesota Health Department suppressed research about additional deadly cancers among Iron Range miners for a year, even though a top government scientist warned that the findings raised significant new health issues.

The department discovered in March 2006 that a rare, asbestos-related cancer had stricken 35 more miners than the 17 previously known. All of the miners have died. The state didn’t release the new information until March of this year, a decision that some health experts are now criticizing.

The findings sparked renewed concern about taconite dust and lung cancer among the 4,000 workers in the state’s iron ore industry.

Health Department documents obtained by the Star Tribune show that officials had planned last year to disclose the information to mining unions, businesses, federal regulators and others. But state Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach rejected those plans last fall.

Documents also show that the department feared that public disclosure of the findings would create controversy. (David Shaffer, Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

This story is disgraceful. Commissioner Mandernach claimed the delay was to allow the Department to “get its ducks in a row.” Internal memoranda and emails obtained by the Star-Tribune make it clear, however, that it was a deliberate cover-up to avoid renewed calls to look into the hazards of mine dust:

That contentious history is reflected in department e-mails, memos and notes released under the state public-records law. They show that officials worried about public reaction to the latest research, which covered 1997 to 2005.

“Many will believe that they confirm the health hazards of the miners that have long been feared and predicted,” said a March 2006 talking-points memo by Dr. Alan Bender, who heads the environmental epidemiology section that conducted the research.

Another briefing paper, prepared last year for the commissioner, said: “Release of the findings is likely to generate demands that the government do more to protect workers.”

Bender, who has long advocated more research into occupational hazards, urged at the time that the findings be released.

For years, the Health Department has regularly released public-health research. Officials could not cite another case in which findings were withheld for a year.[snip] Internal documents show that the Health Department drafted a news release in June 2006 about the 35 additional cases of mesothelioma, but planned to release it only if word of the findings leaked out.

The documents reveal that department officials were so concerned about a possible leak that they excluded two prominent University of Minnesota researchers from scientific consultation because they had been critical of the Health Department in the past.

This is nothing short of disgraceful. Really disgraceful. Commissioner Mandernach needs to go. She has shown she has no understanding of the public health mission of her Department and an all too obvious showing of where she thought her bread was buttered. I’m sure she can find other employment in the Bush administration. She’s just their type.

Comments

  1. #1 Anonynous MDH employee
    June 21, 2007

    I am an MDH employee, and this latest disgrace by our commissioner is just another example of the ineptitude that we’ve seen since she arrived. Mandernach is completely aligned with industry, whichever one you choose, over the interests of Minnesotans’ health. Disgusting.

    She dislikes MDH employees and holes up in her ivory tower office, surrounded by political hacks who serve only to protect her interests. Pawlenty should be embarrassed and ashamed. The public should be outraged and demand that she be thrown out of her position. Send her back to Moose Lake.

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