Last modified: June 7, 2021
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 dollars, and Minnesota produced more than 76 percent 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 that 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 include mining, processing plants, power plants and oil refineries. These jobs place workers in high-temperature environments where asbestos was once widely used for insulation purposes. If damaged, asbestos-containing materials can release fibers known to cause life-threatening diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma if inhaled.
Minnesota also received massive shipments of asbestos-contaminated mineral ore mined in Libby, Montana. The usually harmless mineral, vermiculite, formed alongside natural asbestos deposits and was shipped nationally to produce materials like insulation, furnaces and brake linings. Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, processed approximately 75 percent of the state’s contaminated vermiculite with 1,523 shipments totaling more than 120,000 tons of ore.
Occupations and Environmental Areas at Risk
Several Minnesota occupations have experienced an elevated risk for asbestos exposure. The majority of reported incidences occur in the mining industry, where asbestos was widely used in buildings, machinery and protective equipment for the material’s heat-resistant properties. Other at-risk occupations in the state, such as plumbing, power generation, construction and maintenance work, also have used asbestos for its heat resistance.
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 to safely remove old asbestos-lined steam pipes from beneath Superior Street.
Studies by the Minnesota Cancer Surveillance System indicate that asbestos exposure is substantially higher for miners compared to the general population. In fact, it was reported that mesothelioma rates were 70 percent higher than the state average in a seven-county region of northeastern Minnesota from 1988 to 1994. This area is known as the Iron Range, a rural portion of Minnesota with four massive iron deposits and a history of mining that dates back to the late 19th century.
Asbestos exposure had been a concern for miners of the Iron Range, but 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 after high-quality iron deposits were depleted. Extracting iron from taconite rock requires processing that exposes workers to heavy amounts of dust and asbestos-like fibers.
The dangers of inhaling taconite dust are not firmly established, but more than 80 taconite workers have developed mesothelioma and thousands have been diagnosed with some form of lung cancer according to the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Health is comparing exposure to asbestos and taconite dust to determine which mineral is more likely causing incidences of asbestos-related disease.
Reserve Mining Co.
In 1973, Minnesota, two other states and several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Reserve Mining Co. for polluting Lake Superior. Based in Silver Bay, Minnesota, the Reserve Mining Co. plant processed raw ore by separating usable iron from other materials. The plant dumped its waste rock into Lake Superior daily for 25 years at a staggering rate of 47 tons per minute.
During litigation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies revealed that microscopic asbestos-like fibers from the Reserve plant were contaminating the water of Lake Superior. Residents of Duluth and several other surrounding shore towns were shocked to discover that Reserve Mining Co. was dumping a potential carcinogen into their unfiltered source of drinking water.
Eight months into the trial, the judge issued Reserve an immediate order to stop dumping into the lake, a decision that cut off one-twelfth of the nation’s supply of iron ore and put 3,000 people out of work. Reserve later appealed the decision and was permitted to continue dumping in the lake until it found an alternative, which came in the form of an on-land disposal area in 1980.
Minnesota is conducting ongoing studies to investigate any connections between the tainted water supply and cancers of the digestive system. Local advocacy groups have considered pursuing legal action against Northshore Mining Co., the company that now owns the Reserve plant. Because 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.
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Western Mineral Products, Inc.
Western Mineral Products, Inc., of northeast Minneapolis, processed vermiculite imported from Libby, Montana, from the 1930s to the 1980s and potentially exposed hundreds of people to significant levels of asbestos.
Unbeknownst to Minneapolis residents, piles of waste rock left in front of the facility for anyone to take free of charge were contaminated with tremolite asbestos. Locals removed materials from the site and may have used it for driveway or yard fill, gardening and other purposes.
The EPA conducted an assessment of 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 and 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. Thankfully, 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 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, but to date, the contaminated vermiculite has been blamed for more than 1,200 asbestos-related illnesses and 400 deaths in Libby alone.
Minnesota residents who worked at or lived nearby Western Mineral Products may have sustained enough asbestos exposure to be at risk of developing a related-health condition. Those who develop a condition may apply for compensation through Grace’s asbestos trust fund, 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, usually forming alongside iron and taconite deposits in the northeastern region of the state. One major occurrence can be found in the Eastern Mesabi district, a vast deposit of iron ore that covers most of Itasca and St. Louis counties. The bands of iron in this area are known to be contaminated with amosite asbestos in some locations. The second asbestos occurrence is found in Aurora, Minnesota, where crocidolite asbestos forms in taconite deposits.
Although undisturbed asbestos in its natural state is typically harmless, the mining and processing of asbestos-contaminated minerals can release airborne fibers that endanger the health of workers and nearby residents.
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
Several hazardous waste sites in Minnesota were classified as Superfund sites by the EPA for the dangers they posed to surrounding populations and the environment. The EPA used federal funding and other resources to assist in cleanup efforts. Two Superfund sites in Minnesota, the Agate Lake Scrap Yard and Olmstead County Sanitary Landfill, are known to contain asbestos contaminants that posed considerable health risks.
Agate Lake Scrap Yard
Located in Fairview Township, Minnesota, the Agate Lake Scrap Yard operated from 1952 to 1982 and received waste materials such as used cars, iron and other metals. The site occupies about eight acres of Fairview Township and about 1,100 people reside within three miles of the scrap yard. The accumulation of construction waste, including manufactured products containing asbestos, made the mineral 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. The proper removal of lead and asbestos contaminates became a priority for the organizations involved with cleanup efforts.
Olmsted County Sanitary Landfill
Olmsted County Sanitary Landfill was operated by the city of Rochester 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 cleanup of the site 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.
Asbestos Litigation in Minnesota
Just as in other states with high incidences of asbestos-related diseases, employees of negligent companies in Minnesota often resort to asbestos litigation. More than 40 asbestos lawsuits have been filed in Minnesota, many involving notable asbestos product manufacturers like Garlock Sealing Technologies, Owen-Illinois Inc, General Electric Company and Rapid American Corporation.
Each of these companies was listed in more than a dozen cases in the state. Because of trends and filing processes in asbestos lawsuits, plaintiffs are capable of suing multiple companies who may be responsible for their exposure, all within one case.
In a 2007 lawsuit, Edward Baker took five different defendants to court, including several of the previously listed manufacturing companies. Outcomes of these cases are not always public as many end in out of court settlements prior to a jury verdict. As more workers continue to develop diseases caused by asbestos, taconite or other fibrous minerals, lawsuits are expected to persist.
In another example, plaintiff Dennis Newinski, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007, took three asbestos manufacturers to court, including John Crane, A.W. Chesterton Co. and Garlock Sealing Technologies, Inc. Both Chesterton and Garlock settled with Newinski before trial. After a 10-day trial in 2008, a Minnesota jury awarded $4.6 million to Newinski. John Crane was held responsible for approximately $3.7 million of the verdict.
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