DNR Concerned That Iron Ore Mining Could Release Asbestos-Like Fibers 08.09.13

Read or listen to the report online from Wisconsin Public Radio By Mike Simonson

The focus is on a naturally occurring mineral called grunerite. Department of Natural Resources hydrogeologist Larry Lynch says grunerite is common in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Minnesota’s Iron Range and northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills.

“It’s important because it can occur in a crystal form that is fibrous,” says Lynch. “It’s one of the minerals that’s referred to as asbestos or asbestos-form minerals.”

In most cases grunerite is not fibrous, which means it wouldn’t take the shape of asbestos fibers. But Lynch says they need to find out if that’s the case at the proposed mining site. He says there could even be a problem on small-scale bulk-sampling, but he thinks steps proposed by Gogebic Taconite would be safe.

“We haven’t completed our review yet, but that may be sufficient,” he says. “It doesn’t mean it won’t be an issue in the future if there is a mining project proposed. Certainly with a full-scale mining operation you move much more material; there’s much greater particulate emissions.”

A five year, $5 million University of Minnesota study of mine workers on the Iron Range showed three times the number of mesothelioma cases than the rest of Minnesota’s population. Asbestos fibers are linked to mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that has no cure.

“We’re a long ways away in this project to really understanding how waste material is being handled [or] what the nature of the waste material is,” says Lynch.

The fibers become airborne or end up in the water during mining operations. But Lynch says there are ways to control the release of the particles if they are present in the Penokee Hills.