The Wisconsin State Journal failed to note specific health and environmental risks associated with taconite mining -- such as increased levels of mesothelioma among miners and groundwater contamination -- in an editorial and news story on a mining reform bill that conservative members of the legislature have made a priority for 2013.
What Is Taconite Mining?
Taconite Mining Is The Process Of Extracting Taconite Iron Ore From The Earth To Be Turned Into Steel. From the Minnesota Progressive Project:
First, holes are drilled and the taconite ore is blasted out of the ground. It is transported to the processing plant in huge trucks that can hold up to 240 tons of taconite. Placed into crushers, the taconite is crushed, mixed with water and ground into a fine powder. Next it goes to the separators where the iron ore is separated from the taconite using strong magnets; this is the concentrate. The remaining waste rock is dumped into tailings basins.
Taconite pellets are made by rolling the concentrate with clay inside rotating cylinders called agglomerators. These little balls the size of marbles are dried and baked to become the familiar hard pellets that kids on the Range quickly learn will leave orange stains on skin and clothing when handled. The pellets, which have an iron content of 65%, are melted down into steel at steel mills. [Minnesota Progressive Project, 9/16/11, emphasis added]
Taconite Mining Poses Health Risks To Miners And Nearby Communities
Physicians For Social Responsibility: 8 Percent Of Infants Born In The Lake Superior Region Have Toxic Levels Of Mercury In Their Bodies. From a Physicians for Social Responsibility fact sheet:
February 2012 research released from Minnesota Department of Health showed that 8% infants born in the Lake Superior region (including areas in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin) have toxic levels of mercury in their bodies, above the federal EPA limit of 5.8 micrograms per liter. Some of the tested infants had levels as high as 211 micrograms per liter. Both mercury exposure and lead exposure have been linked to health issues for older children, teens and adults, including problems with infertility, autoimmune disease (such as rheumatoid arthritis) and increased risk of heart attack and stroke. [Physicians for Social Responsibility, February 2012, internal citation removed for clarity]
Physicians For Social Responsibility: Taconite Miners And Processing Workers Are At Risk For Silicosis And Mesothelioma. From a Physicians for Social Responsibility fact sheet:
In addition to threatening the viability of watersheds and purity of drinking water, taconite ore mining and processing releases heavy metals and silicate particulate into the air. This air pollution can exacerbate lung diseases like asthma and COPD. Taconite miners and processing workers are at risk of silicosis and mesothelioma. Michigan has confirmed 37 silicosis cases in miners in Upper Peninsula iron ore mines from 1987-2009, though researchers estimate that only 42% of occupational silicosis cases are captured in this annual study and the number of actual cases is probably higher. [Physicians for Social Responsibility, February 2012, internal citations removed for clarity]
Mesothelioma Center: Mesothelioma Rate Among Mining Industry Employees "Is Considerably Higher Than It Should Be." From the Mesothelioma Center:
An already abnormal mesothelioma death toll in northeast Minnesota continues to climb, according to an updated study at the University of Minnesota examining the nearby taconite mining industry.
The study, which began in 2008 with funding from state lawmakers, confirmed what many suspected for years about the mines in the "Iron Range" area of Minnesota.
Taconite is a lower-grade iron ore that is prevalent in the area. The industry [employs] approximately 3,000 workers.
The study has focused on the estimated 46,000 people born after 1920 who worked in the industry. Early results show that 1,681 taconite workers developed some type of lung cancer, including 82 with confirmed cases of mesothelioma, which normally strikes 2,000 to 3,000 people a year in the United States.
Jeffrey Mandel, associate professor at Minnesota and lead researcher in the study, confirmed that the mesothelioma rate is considerably higher than it should be. "We are still doing the analysis to find out how much so," Mandel said earlier this week during a telephone news conference. [Mesothelioma Center, 10/18/11, internal hyperlink removed]
UMN Study: Elevated Mortality Ratios From Mesothelioma And Lung Cancer Among Workers In Mining Industry. From the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study:
Preliminary analysis of the mortality (cause of death) data for workers based on number of years they worked in the industry confirms, as expected, elevated standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) from mesothelioma and lung cancer. Several other causes of death were evaluated, and these were not elevated but determined to be as expected (i.e. no higher risk for taconite workers). Cause of death from several common diseases of other major organs/systems (cancer of esophagus, stomach, breast; diabetes, COPD, kidney disease and neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, etc.) were also found to be similar for those living in Minnesota and not working in the taconite industry. However, heart disease (hypertension and ischemic) was higher than is normally seen in a working population. This is an area that warrants further investigation but is not within the scope of this research project. [University of Minnesota, 5/31/12]
Numerous Environmental Risks Are Associated With Taconite Mining
Sierra Club: Modern Taconite Mines Are Chronic Polluters. From a Sierra Club fact sheet describing the dozens of air and water quality violations at taconite mines in Michigan and Minnesota:
The evidence from neighboring states demonstrates that all taconite mines are polluters. A survey of compliance records from 2004-2011, shows that modern taconite mines are chronic polluters. Moreover, most of these fines and violations have taken place under Minnesota's ferrous mining law established in 1993. Is this a mining law we should use as an example for Wisconsin?
Nine taconite mines and related production and transport facilities in Minnesota and Michigan (seven in MN, two in MI) account for nearly all U.S. iron ore production. The chart below shows dozens of air and water quality violations resulting in more than $ 790,000 in fines, plus cleanup orders and stipulations costing another $9.1 million.
[Sierra Club, October 2011, internal citations removed]
Open Pit Taconite Mines Result In Permanent Changes To The Landscape. From the Wisconsin Sierra Club:
Open pit taconite mines result in permanent changes to the landscape. In Michigan and Minnesota, taconite pits and waste storage sites are permanent features that cover hundreds of square miles. Without additional information, it is unclear what the footprint of a taconite mine project in the Penokee Range would be, but it is clear that a portion of the Range and the resources and habitats that it now supports would be permanently removed. [Sierra Club, October 2011]
Mining Can Change The Chemical Composition Of Water And Could Affect Water Quality. From Northland College Associate Professor Of Geoscience, Tom Fitz:
Mining can also have environmental impacts from changes in the chemical composition of water from the area of a mine and waste rock piles. Of particular concern is the potential effect of the water interacting with minerals from the mine -- dissolving metals that impact the quality of surface water. The two dominant minerals in the Ironwood Formation, magnetite and quartz, are nearly insoluble and do not influence the chemistry of water they are in contact with. However, the detailed mineralogy still needs to be studied thoroughly, because bedrock geology is complex everywhere, and there is always the possibility of the presence of minerals that could impact water quality.
The rock on the north side of the Ironwood Formation, the Tyler Slate, is known to contain small amounts of the mineral pyrite (iron sulfide) which can influence the chemistry of water. Part of the Tyler Formation would have to be removed in order for the mine to access the ore of the Ironwood Formation, so there is potential for water in the area to have an increased concentration of metals from interaction with pyrite in waste rock piles. How much pyrite is present still needs to be determined, and if there is much pyrite, what could be done to prevent it from impacting water quality. [Bad River Watershed Association, accessed 1/4/13]
Gogebic Taconite Mining Project In Wisconsin Could Use More Water Than "The Entire City Of Madison." From Clean Wisconsin:
The Gogebic Taconite mining project could use as much as 41 million gallons of water each day, more than the daily water use of the entire city of Madison. [Clean Wisconsin, accessed 1/4/13]
Proposed Bill Allowing More Mining In Wisconsin Would Have Had Devastating Effects On Environment
Previous Taconite Mining Legislation In Wisconsin Would Have Rolled Back Environmental Protections. From a Clean Wisconsin fact sheet describing dangerous provisions in an Iron Mining Bill (AB 426/SB 288):
Rolls back commonsense environmental protections
• Allows mining corporations to dump toxic mine waste into sensitive wetlands and floodplains. (p. 23)
• Allows mining corporations to draw down water levels from rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater. (pp. 31-33)
• Significantly weakens wetland protections. (pp. 28-29)
• Allows iron mining law to supersede all other environmental regulations, unlike current law which gives deference to existing environmental laws, and unlike laws all other industry is subject to. (p. 18)
• Allows DNR to provide an exemption for a mining corporation from any requirements it sees fit. (p. 15) [Clean Wisconsin, accessed 1/4/13]
Despite Numerous Health And Environmental Issues, Wisconsin State Journal's Coverage Of Most Recent Mining Bill Never Mentioned Risks
Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Advocated For Mining Bill Without Highlighting Public Health Risks. From a Wisconsin State Journal editorial titled, "Pass a bipartisan mining bill now":
Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leaders have pledged that jobs are Job No. 1 in this new session. There is no better way to "walk the talk" than working with Democrats to bring forth a bipartisan mining bill that removes unworkable requirements from the current permitting process while still holding a firm line on necessary environmental protections.
This is not rocket science or brain surgery. It is finding a way to preserve air, water and soil quality while opening the door to hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development.
Along with protecting the environment, the length of time required for the permitting process and the amount of public input allowed have been controversial. All three are very solvable.
A mining bill failed by a close margin last session when Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center broke ranks with his GOP colleagues and voted against the bill, citing a lack of environmental protections. [Wisconsin State Journal, 1/7/12]
Wisconsin State Journal Article Failed To Mention Health And Environmental Risks In Mining Bill Discussion. From the Wisconsin State Journal:
Streamlining the permitting process for mining in Wisconsin will be perhaps the top non-budget topic in the upcoming session, and Assembly Republicans said a bill to do just that will be the first introduced. The only question is, how far will the changes go?
GOP leaders won't say. A separate mining bill died last session by one vote after Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, bucked his party and turned down the GOP-backed proposal. He said it provided too little environmental protection and public input in the permitting process.
The push to change Wisconsin's mining laws was spurred by a proposal by Gogebic Taconite to put a $2 billion iron mine near Mellon that promised to provide 700 mining jobs and 2,100 support positions and hundreds of millions a year in economic impact.
In recent months, Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, chaired a special committee that came up with proposed parameters for a new bill, including a two-year deadline for permit review, rather than the 360-day deadline in last session's bill. The proposal from Cullen's committee also would allow the state Department of Natural Resources to pause the process for up to six months, maintain groundwater protections, require a master public hearing once DNR approves the permit and give payments to local communities based on how much iron is extracted. [Wisconsin State Journal, 1/6/12]