The long-time residents of Iron County, Wisconsin who make up the Iron County Joint Impacts Mining Committee say the open-pit iron mine planned for the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin – a range that extends into Michigan where it’s known as the Gogebic Range – will bring much needed good jobs and economic development. Such jobs, the committee told a group of visiting journalists in August, have been lacking since the last Wisconsin iron mines in the area closed in the early and mid-1960s. The jobs the mine would bring are the type needed to keep local communities’ young people from moving away, said committee members. Environmental advocates and other area residents, including many of the region’s tribal leaders, oppose the mine for what they say will be devastating impacts, particularly to the area’s waterways and wetlands. The proposed mine made national news this summer after masked activists harassed mining company personnel and armed security guards were hired to patrol the property. There’s also been considerable controversy over a new law that was passed that will help facilitate the mine. What have not yet received much attention are the potential occupational health hazards of mining and processing the taconite ore the mine is expected to yield.

Now in the permitting and exploratory stage of development by Gogebic Taconite LLC – a subsidiary of a company called Foresight Energy that has coal mining operations in southern Illinois (billionaire Chris Cline is the company’s founder and principal) – the mine site would stretch for 4.5 miles above the headwaters of the Bad River that flows through an extensive network of wetlands and sloughs into Lake Superior. The river estuary, where Chippewa bands grow wild rice, is considered one of the most fully functioning Great Lakes wetlands. The mining operation would extract what is called taconite, a low-grade iron ore that is extracted by blasting, then crushing rock into a fine powder that is then concentrated into gumball-sized pellets for further processing into iron and steel products. While there are no taconite mines currently operating in Wisconsin, several are located in nearby Michigan and Minnesota. A look at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) records for those mines – and at an ongoing occupational health study of taconite industry workers by the University of Minnesota – suggests that regional taconite mining may pose some serious health risks, particularly to respiratory and auditory health.

What’s in the air?

In Michigan, about 150 or so miles east of the planned Gogebic Taconite mine site are the Empire and Tilden taconite mines operated by Cliffs Natural Resources. They have been producing taconite here since the 1960s and ‘70s, and mining at these locations dates back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cliffs has similar operations in three locations in Minnesota, including the taconite operations the University of Minnesota has been studying. Another Minnesota taconite mine is run by ArcelorMittal.

The MSHA records for all six operations show chronic violations of noise standards and numerous instances of high levels of exposure to respirable quartz, otherwise known as silica dust. Over the years there have been injuries caused by heavy equipment at the Michigan and Minnesota taconite mines, but what stand out are the violations of noise and respirable dust standards. Medical records and dust sampling results from both the Michigan and Minnesota taconite operations indicate that some taconite workers have also been exposed to respirable mineral fibers, including asbestos.

The University of Minnesota (UMN) study of current and historical Minnesota taconite mining exposures and of former mine workers’ illness and death records has found an elevated rate of mesothelioma (a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure), lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. According to study results released in April 2013, former mine workers’ death rates from mesothelioma were nearly 200% higher than expected. Lung cancer was 20% higher than expected and heart disease rates 11% higher. (The study says records citing mesothelioma as a specific cause of death are only available beginning in 1999.) Results available thus far from the study of workers and spouses show 17% to have evidence of lung abnormalities typically associated with exposure to asbestos-type fibers, while 6% of those surveyed had evidence of non-cancerous lung disease of a type often associated with silica or mixed dust exposure. The study notes that commercial asbestos was used in the industry and that other factors may have contributed to these outcomes but that mineral fiber exposure has been associated with this taconite mining.

These upper Midwestern taconite operations can also affect air quality beyond their fence-lines and along with occupational health impacts, so the UMN study is examining potential effects on community health. These operations have also been asked to comply with new US federal pollution-control operations aimed at reducing haze over northern parks and wilderness areas. However in June, Cliffs Natural Resources and ArcelorMittal were granted a temporary delay in compliance. Supporters of these federal regulations say the taconite mines’ pollutants have been contributing to community-wide cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

In the late 1990s, United Steelworkers (USW) asked MSHA to investigate circumstances that had led to cases of asbestosis, pneumoconiosis and silicosis among its members who worked at the Empire and Tilden mines. The USW questioned the sampling results reported by MSHA and suggested that the days on which exposure samples were taken, conditions were not as dusty as they usually were, leading MSHA to record lower dust levels that the union thought were typical. Union officials also reported that workers with work-related health conditions had been intimidated when they applied for workers’ compensation.

Taconite processing – noise, dust and heat

If Wisconsin fully permits the Gogebic Taconite mine, the way it processes the taconite will likely resemble how this ore is treated elsewhere. After the ore-bearing rock is extracted and crushed, it is mixed with water and pulverized to the consistency of “face power,” as mine representatives described it. That powder is then concentrated and rolled into balls that are dried and heated in a high-temperature kiln. Gogebic Taconite spokesperson, Bob Seitz, principal at the Madison, Wisconsin lobbying firm Arrowhead Strategies, explained in a phone call that while there aren’t any examples of new US taconite processing facilities – existing plants date back to the 1970s and earlier – “a lot of technology is being applied to this process, including environmental safeguards.”

Taconite processing can be seen today not far from the planned site of the Gogebic Taconite mine at the facilities operated by Cliffs Natural Resources near the town of Ishpeming, Michigan. In late August, I was part of a group of journalists who were given a tour of the Empire mine site and adjacent concentrating and pelletizing plant. Photographs were prohibited inside and out.

Inside the plant’s operating areas, where it looked as if we had stepped much farther back in time than the 1970s when the plant was built, it was deafeningly loud. Even with the required earplugs, the noise of the enormous moving parts – gears, pulleys, conveyor belts – came through with constant and heavy vibration. The plant was dimly lit and tinged with a dark rust-colored dust. Sign placards were covered by a layer of dust. The few workers on the floor during our tour looked reddish with the dust – as did my shoes after we left. As we approached the section of the plant where the kiln that operates at 2400ºF is located, the air became infernally hot. One of our guides, Cliff Natural Resources public affairs director, Dale Hemmila, guessed that the ambient temperature was more than 100ºF.

Asked later via email about the operations’ safety hazards, Hemmila said “operating large mining equipment is the most significant potential safety hazard in the mining area.” In the pelletizing plant, he singled out “working around moving conveyor belts” as the greatest potential hazard. “It is important to note,” he added, “that safety is the number one core value at Cliffs Natural Resources.” All employees, he wrote, receive 40 hours of new miner safety and orientation training, annual 8-hour refresher training, along with “task training,” monthly safety meeting and daily “toolbox” safety briefings.  Noise and potential respiratory hazards are not mentioned. Gogebic Taconite’s ore sampling, if the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approves it, is expected to take place later this year. That sampling, explained Bob Seitz, “will provide a lot of answers about the facility” that would process this materials. According to Iron County Mining Impact Committee meeting minutes and Northwest Regional Planning Commissioner Jason Laumann, an anonymous donor has offered $50,000 for a socio-economic analysis of the proposed “GTac” mine, as the project’s called for short. Laumann explained by phone that the pledge was made by “an individual” who contacted his office. He declined to name the individual but said the study was still in early planning stages.

Controversy around this mine has thus far been considerable. As area residents continue to scrutinize the mine’s environmental and economic impacts, recent history suggests that hard questions should also be asked about the mine and ore-processing’s occupational health impacts

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