For centuries, the iron ore industry has played a crucial role in Minnesota’s economy. In 2007, the state’s raw mineral production was valued at $2.69 billion. The same year, Minnesota produced more than 76% of the nation’s usable iron ore. The benefits of mining, however, do not come without risks. Excavating and processing raw ore is a dusty job. It can expose Minnesota workers to harmful suspended particles, including silica dust and airborne asbestos fibers.
Most job sites in Minnesota at risk for asbestos exposure. Examples include mining, processing plants, power plants and oil refineries. These jobs place workers in high-temperature environments. In these situations, asbestos was once widely used for insulation purposes. If damaged, asbestos-containing materials can release fibers into the air. When inhaled, they can cause life-threatening diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Minnesota also received massive shipments of asbestos-contaminated mineral ore mined in Libby, Montana. The usually harmless mineral, vermiculite, formed alongside natural asbestos deposits. Companies shipped minerals nationally to produce insulation, furnaces and brake linings. Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, processed approximately 75% of the state’s contaminated vermiculite. The city’s 1,523 shipments total more than 120,000 tons of ore.
Minnesota’s Occupations and Environmental Areas at Risk
Several Minnesota occupations have experienced an elevated risk for asbestos exposure. Most reported incidences occur in the mining industry. Asbestos was widely used in buildings, machinery and protective equipment. The material has effective heat-resistant properties. Other at-risk occupations in the state have used asbestos for its heat resistance. These jobs included plumbing, power generation, construction and maintenance work.
Road workers also face the risk of exposure when they encounter asbestos-containing pipes. For example, in May 2018, the city of Duluth, Minnesota, had to hire licensed asbestos abatement professionals. The workers needed to safely remove old asbestos-lined steam pipes beneath Superior Street.
The Minnesota Cancer Surveillance System indicates that asbestos exposure is substantially higher for miners. Mesothelioma rates were 70% higher than average in northeastern Minnesota. This area is known as the Iron Range. This rural portion of Minnesota has four massive iron deposits and a mining history dating to the late 19th century.
The harmful effects of another mineral common to the mining industry are currently under investigation. Taconite is a low-grade iron ore that revived Minnesota’s iron industry. It became popular after high-quality iron deposits were depleted. Extracting iron from taconite rock requires processing. The method exposes workers to heavy amounts of dust and asbestos-like fibers.
The dangers of inhaling taconite dust are not firmly established. More than 80 taconite workers have developed mesothelioma. Thousands have been diagnosed with some form of lung cancer. The Minnesota Department of Health compares exposure to asbestos and taconite dust to determine which mineral is more toxic.
Reserve Mining Co.
In 1973, Minnesota, two other states and several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Reserve Mining Co. The lawsuit alleged that Reserve polluted Lake Superior. Based in Silver Bay, Minnesota, the Reserve Mining Co. plant processed raw ore. Part of the process involved separating usable iron from other materials. The plant dumped its waste rock into Lake Superior daily. This went on for 25 years at a staggering rate of 47 tons per minute.
Studies revealed that asbestos-like fibers from the Reserve plant contaminated Lake Superior. Residents of Duluth and surrounding shore towns learned that Reserve had dumped a potential carcinogen into their drinking water.
Eight months into the trial, the judge issued Reserve an immediate order to stop dumping into the lake. The decision cut off one-twelfth of the nation’s iron ore supply. It also put 3,000 people out of work. Reserve later appealed the decision. It was permitted to dump in the lake until it found an alternative. That alternative came in the form of an on-land disposal area in 1980.
Minnesota is conducting ongoing studies investigating connections between the tainted water supply and cancer. Local advocacy groups have considered pursuing legal action. They plan to file a lawsuit against Northshore Mining Co., which now owns the Reserve plant. All studies have not been completed, and the effects of asbestos exposure can remain unnoticed for decades. The extent of contamination at Lake Superior is not yet completely realized.
Western Mineral Products, Inc.
Western Mineral Products, Inc., of northeast Minneapolis, processed vermiculite imported from Libby, Montana. This occurred from the 1930s to the 1980s and potentially exposed hundreds of people to significant levels of airborne asbestos fibers.
Piles of waste rock were left in front of the facility for anyone to take free of charge. Unbeknownst to Minneapolis residents, they were contaminated with tremolite asbestos. Locals removed materials from the site and may have used them for driveway or yard fill, gardening and other purposes.
The EPA assessed the Western Mineral Products site in 2000 and found asbestos on the property. Throughout 2000, the EPA inspected more than 300 residences around the site for asbestos contamination. Several dozens of the most contaminated properties were cleaned. Testing in 2008 showed extremely low levels of asbestos inside homes that harbored substantial outdoor contamination. These indoor asbestos levels were so low that it wasn’t considered dangerous. By 2012, the EPA had cleaned up more than 260 properties near the site.
In February 2014, the EPA announced that it received $63 million from W.R. Grace. The funds were meant to clean 40 vermiculite processing sites throughout the U.S., including Western Mineral Products in Minnesota. The dangers of asbestos from Libby are still being studied. The contaminated vermiculite has been blamed for more than 1,200 asbestos-related illnesses and 400 deaths in Libby alone.
Minnesota residents who worked nearby Western Mineral Products may develop an asbestos-related health condition. Those who develop a condition can apply for compensation through the WRG Asbestos PI Trust. Trust fund claimants often work with an experienced attorney when filing a claim.
Environmental Asbestos in Minnesota
Naturally occurring asbestos exists in two locations in Minnesota. It usually forms alongside iron and taconite deposits in the northeastern region of the state. One major occurrence can be found in the Eastern Mesabi district. This vast iron ore deposit covers most of the Itasca and St. Louis counties. The iron bands in this area are contaminated with amosite asbestos in some locations. The second asbestos occurrence is found in Aurora, Minnesota. Here, crocidolite asbestos forms in taconite deposits.
Job Sites with Known Asbestos Exposure:
- US Steel
- Conwed Corporation plant
- Monticello Nuclear Power Plant
- Koch petroleum plants
- Reserve Mining Company
- Marathon petroleum plants
- Jones and Laughlin Corporation
- Hanna Mining Company
- Garlock Sealing Technologies
- Owen-Illinois, Inc.
- General Electric Company
- Rapid American Corporation
Undisturbed asbestos in its natural state is typically harmless. The mining and processing of asbestos-contaminated minerals can release airborne fibers. These toxic fibers endanger the health of workers and nearby residents.
Several hazardous waste sites in Minnesota were classified as Superfund sites by the EPA. They posed a danger to surrounding populations and the environment. The EPA used federal funding and other resources to assist in cleanup efforts. Two Superfund sites in Minnesota contain asbestos contaminants. They are the Agate Lake Scrap Yard and Olmstead County Sanitary Landfill.
Agate Lake Scrap Yard
Located in Fairview Township, Minnesota, the Agate Lake Scrap Yard operated from 1952 to 1982. It received waste materials such as used cars, iron and other metals. The site occupies about eight acres of Fairview Township. About 1,100 people reside within three miles of the scrap yard. The construction waste included manufactured products containing asbestos. The accumulation was a substantial health risk for scrap yard workers and surrounding populations. The EPA added the Agate Lake Scrap Yard to its National Priorities List in 1986. Removing lead and asbestos contaminates became a priority for the organizations involved with cleanup efforts.
Olmsted County Sanitary Landfill
The city of Rochester operated Olmsted County Sanitary Landfill from 1970 until 1993. The landfill occupied about 52 acres and stored various industrial wastes and toxins, including asbestos. In 1986, the EPA added the Olmsted County Landfill to its National Priorities List. This initiated a thorough site cleanup to safely remove all the hazardous materials. Analysis of the surface water, groundwater and local flow areas became a major priority. By 1994, the EPA capped the landfill and decided that no further action would be needed. The site was removed from the National Priorities List the following year.