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November 17, 2018

Cost of asbestos controls at mine won't be known for a while

The discovery of asbestos-like fibers at the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine site could add to the cost of the operation, but the amount of added expense won’t be known for many months.

If the substance is widespread, it’s possible that controlling it during mining and rock-crushing could drive expenses so high that the mine would not be built, but there’s no indication that will be the case, said company spokesman Bob Seitz.

“I guess that would be possible,” Seitz said. “Is it affecting the decisions we’re making about doing the testing and moving forward? No. There’s nothing right now to show it will be too expensive.”

State Department of Natural Resources officials agree that it’s too early to know how much of the cancer-causing material lies in the rock of the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin where the company wants to dig for iron.

It’s not clear if the test drilling already done in eight spots and five more that are planned will be sufficient to determine the extent of any hazardous fibrous material with characteristics of asbestos, but Gogebic Taconite almost certainly will be able to engineer solutions to any problem — possibly simply using water to keep dust down — just like mine companies have done in other states, Seitz said.

Six active iron mines currently being studied in Minnesota appear to meet federal standards — with some exceptions — for protecting workers from tiny airborne fibers that break loose from rock, but the workers had higher-than-expected rates of mesothelioma, the uncurable lung cancer caused by asbestos, according to a five-year University of Minnesota study.

The next stage of the study will determine if the toxic particles caused the disease, or if some outside factor such as exposure to commercial asbestos contributed, said Jeffrey Mandel, a University of Minnesota School of Public Health professor and principal investigator for the research effort.

The iron mines keep most workers in enclosed cabs of heavy equipment outfitted with high-efficiency air filtration systems, said Peter Raynor, who led a study of workplace pollution controls.

In rock-crushing plants, new air-filtering technology captures airborne particles better than older scrubbers that collect dust in water, Raynor said.

“In most of these operations, the crushers are enclosed and they have belts that carry the ore that are also enclosed,” Raynor said. “You can still get dust emerging from that if you don’t pull enough air through the enclosure.”

The study found instances of inadequate air flows, but workers doing maintenance or other special jobs were most likely to appear to be exposed, Raynor said.

“You would see miners who would show evidence of contamination on their clothing, or the skin on their face,” Raynor said.

Scientists also monitored air in five mining communities, and collected very few fibrous particles in three places and none in the others, said Larry Zanko, a senior research fellow at the university’s Center for Applied Research and Technology Development in Duluth.

Gogebic Taconite will need to control dust of all kinds, and if the cancer-causing fibers are present, extra air monitoring may be required, said Larry Lynch, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hydrologist who is coordinating the agency’s response as the company seeks permits to conduct bulk sampling, and eventually to mine.

The company insisted in a July 28 letter to the DNR that it didn’t expect to find toxic fibers because the type likely to occur in Wisconsin — in a certain form of a mineral called grunerite — had only been found in one portion of the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota.

The letter also asserted that the DNR couldn’t regulate asbestos emissions, but last week company spokesman Bob Seitz acknowledged that the independent laboratories that analyze core samples from the site will look microscopically for toxic fibers under a provision of the state mining law.

The DNR disclosed on Oct. 8 that a rock containing such fibers was found at the mine site in May.

Seitz has questioned the finding, saying that it was possible someone tampered with the sample, although he acknowledged he had no evidence. Mine opponents said the DNR’s confirmation that the material is present should spark tougher scrutiny of laboratory tests that are being conducted on core samples the company collected from the mine site.

“There’s a lot of money at risk for (the company) based on the testing for this material,” said Dave Blouin, who works on mining issues for the Sierra Club in Wisconsin.

Mike Wiggins Jr., chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation is downstream of the mine site, said local geologists have observed additional quantities of fibrous minerals. The tribe is also concerned about sulphide in waste rock releasing sulfuric acid into streams.

“They are going to keep the asbestos wet and the sulfide mineral dry?” Wiggins said. “This is a sham. Nobody’s drinking the Kool-Aid up here.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration sets exposure limits for toxic fibers that can break away from certain minerals, including grunerite, which has been documented by the U.S. Geologic Survey in large quantities near the western end of the mine site.

Not all grunerite is of the dangerous “asbestiform” type, but that form of the mineral was documented as early as the 1920s near the Tyler Forks River not far from the east edge of the mine site, Lynch said.

An in-depth USGS survey described fibrous bundles and “needles” that match the description of the asbestiform type of grunerite, Lynch said.

A more recent USGS publication noted that grunerite “is abundant in the iron-formation at Penokee Gap near Mellen” near the west side of the mine site.

Some activists have expressed concern that blasting would spread the toxic particles, but Lynch said that properly executed explosions break the rock without spewing large plumes into the air.

Typically, a blasting site can be wetted down on the surface and containers of additional water are dropped into holes drilled into the rock before each explosion, Lynch said.

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Cost of asbestos controls at mine won't be known for a while

Asbestos in rocks won't stop northern Wisconsin mine, GTac maintains

Despite what one geologist calls an “abundant” quantity of asbestos-like mineral on the site, Gogebic Taconite has no plans to abandon efforts to develop a $1.5 billion open pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

Bob Seitz, a spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, said Tuesday there are ways to address the release of any asbestos during the mining process, where rocks are crushed and the iron ore extracted with magnets. He says it could as simple as using water to control dust at the site.

“If it’s something we can handle and if we can demonstrate this to the state and federal governments, then we can move ahead,” says Seitz. “We’ll continue to do scientific testing as required by law.”

A pair of scientists have found at least 100 pounds of asbestiform grunerite in two piles within an old test pit in eastern Ashland County. The discovery is being called a game changer by mine opponents and has brought calls for GTac to stop work on a project supporters say could create hundreds of new jobs and boost the Wisconsin economy.

Grunerite is commonly known as “brown asbestos” and has been linked to lung disease in mine workers, according to a study in Minnesota. Grunerite is also similar to asbestiform particles found in the taconite tailings once dumped into Lake Superior by Reserve Mining, one of the costliest environmental cleanups in U.S. history in the 1970s.

Seitz is familiar with those issues but says mining operators in Minnesota today are familiar with handling the hazardous material and expects that similar procedures can work in Wisconsin.

“They treat it like any other workplace issue,” he said. “It’s been found in parts of the Mesabi Range and they’ve dealt with it there.”

Concerns over the mine project have intensified in the past week following a report in the Ashland Daily Press that UW-Madison Geochemist Joseph Skulan and Northland College Geologist Tom Fitz identified at least 100 pounds of grunerite on the mining site. It is the same mineral identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

The Bad River Tribe, which has opposed the project from the outset, has since accused GTac of covering up the issue as part of its public relations campaign to build support for the project. In July, the company wrote the DNR saying it did not think there was any asbestos on the site, even though a staff geologist suspected it following a site visit this spring.

“It’s a deal breaker,” said Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins in a statement. “Geologists and children could walk in there and see it with the naked eye. This is a compelling, premeditation for disaster, a disaster that would befall the Bad River Reservation and non-tribal people of the Bad River Watershed.”

The Penokee Hills Education Project has also called for the project to be tabled because of asbestos issues.

Dave Blouin, a mining expert with the Madison chapter of the Sierra Club, doesn’t dispute there are ways to safely handle asbestos at the mine site, but says those methods may be too expensive to make the project financially viable.

“Even if you can engineer your way out of it, there are huge costs involved,” he says.

Moreover, given the glut of iron ore on world markets, Blouin questions whether investors would ever take a chance at a Wisconsin mine site where asbestos might prove a risk.

“There are much more attractive options out there if you are looking for an iron play,” he says.

The 2003 Minnesota study being cited by mining opponents concluded that exposure to asbestos was the most likely cause of 14 of 17 cases of mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer. The study also found that mesothelioma occurs at twice the expected rate among the population of the northeastern region of Minnesota where the Iron Range is located.

GTac spokesman Seitz says he is familiar with that study but noted that spouses of mine workers did not appear to suffer any health impacts, suggesting that any exposure to hazard materials is limited to the mining site itself and can be managed.

GTac earlier said it did not believe asbestos was at the site, based on exploratory work done by U.S. Steel several decades ago. U.S. Steel had the mineral rights for the site in the 1950s but never developed the mine, choosing instead to develop in Minnesota where the ore body was closer to the surface.

Asbestos is a set of naturally-occurring silicate minerals that became increasingly popular as a building material in the late 19th century for its sound absorption, resistance to fire and low cost. It was widely used as electrical insulation and in building insulation.

But in the early 20th century, researchers began to note lung problems and early deaths in asbestos mining towns. Despite those concerns, thousands of tons of asbestos were used in World War II shipbuilding. Later studies found 14 deaths from mesothelioma per 1,000 shipyard workers.

As worker safety and environmental concerns increased in the 1960s, efforts began to reduce public exposure. By the late 1970s, court documents proved that asbestos industry officials knew of asbestos dangers since the 1930s but had concealed them from the public, sparking lawsuits that continue today.

All European countries and much of the developed world have since banned asbestos. The U.S. has tight regulations on asbestos but not an outright ban, despite numerous attempts at legislation. It is still used here in brake pads, automobile clutches, roofing materials, vinyl tile and in some imported cement pipe and corrugated sheeting.

While any mention of asbestos causes great concern in this country, asbestos is still widely used in other places and is commercially mined in Russia. The New York Times recently detailed the asbestos industry in Russia, noting that the mines there are a major health concern both for workers and those living nearby.

Russia has the world’s largest geological reserves of asbestos and mines about a million tons a year, exporting about 60 percent of it. Demand remains strong for asbestos in China and India, where it is still widely used in insulation and building materials.

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Asbestos in rocks won't stop northern Wisconsin mine, GTac maintains

Asbestos fibers found in northern Wisconsin mine site

Asbestos mineral fibers have been found in a rock sample from Gogebic Taconite’s proposed iron ore mine site in northern Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

But the extent of the mineral, known as grunerite, at the site of the $1.5 billion proposed mine in Ashland and Iron counties is not known, the DNR said.

The presence of asbestos was confirmed by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey recently after a DNR geologist visiting the site last spring suspected the rock contained telltale fibers of the carcinogen.

Gogebic Taconite has been conducting preliminary work as part of its plans to apply for a permit to mine iron ore from a large open pit that could run for 4 miles.

Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz said the company will conduct studies to determine the extent of asbestos in the rock. He said a mining bill passed last spring, and attacked by opponents, included language that mandated the analysis.

University of Minnesota researchers released results of a five-year study earlier this year which found taconite industry workers face an increased risk of contracting mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, and the risk increases the longer they remain on the job. Researchers also said they couldn’t say for certain if dust from iron mining and processing operations caused it.

Sen. Robert Jauch, whose district includes the proposed mine, opposes the project under the mining regulations approved by the Legislature.

The existence of asbestos “raises numerous serious scientific concerns about the geology of the area,” Jauch said.

Jauch said he was troubled that Gogebic said in a letter to the DNR in July that it didn’t believe grunerite would be found.

Seitz said the company made the comments based on information from consultants and data supplied by U.S. Steel, which conducted exploratory work decades ago.

This article: 

Asbestos fibers found in northern Wisconsin mine site

Asbestos fiber found in rock at proposed mine site

MADISON, WI (AP) –

Asbestos mineral fibers have been found in a rock sample from Gogebic Taconite’s proposed iron ore mine site in northern Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

But the extent of the mineral, known as grunerite, at the site of the $1.5 billion proposed mine in Ashland and Iron counties is not known, the DNR said.

The presence of asbestos was confirmed by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey recently after a DNR geologist visiting the site last spring suspected the rock contained telltale fibers of the carcinogen.

Gogebic Taconite has been conducting preliminary work as part of its plans to apply for a permit to mine iron ore from a large open pit that could run for 4 miles.

If Gogebic goes ahead with its formal application, it would be required to study the extent of asbestos in the rock, explain how it would control the spread of airborne emissions and how it would be monitored, DNR hydrogeologist Larry Lynch told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“The main concern is airborne particulates,” Lynch said. “It will come down to how effective their dust control will be.”

Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz said the company will conduct studies to determine the extent of asbestos in the rock. He said a mining bill passed last spring, and attacked by opponents, included language that mandated the analysis.

University of Minnesota researchers released results of a five-year study earlier this year which found taconite industry workers face an increased risk of contracting mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, and the risk increases the longer they remain on the job. Researchers also said they couldn’t say for certain if dust from iron mining and processing operations caused it.

Sen. Robert Jauch, whose district includes the proposed mine, opposes the project under the mining regulations approved by the Legislature.

The existence of asbestos “raises numerous serious scientific concerns about the geology of the area,” Jauch said.

Jauch said he was troubled that Gogebic said in a letter to the DNR in July that it didn’t believe grunerite would be found.

Seitz said the company made the comments based on information from consultants and data supplied by U.S. Steel, which conducted exploratory work decades ago.

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Asbestos fiber found in rock at proposed mine site