Undermining Public Confidence

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The news has been unsettling me lately.  Mining-related cancers hidden by the Department of Health for a year, the seemingly growing presence of 3M chemicals in drinking water and area fish, and another whistleblower lawsuit against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) – the first occurring a couple of years ago regarding the aforementioned 3M chemicals and the second regarding high levels of the pesticide Atrazine in the waters of Southeastern MN (though it is all throughout corn country) – create a troubling appearance of reoccurring patterns that our state must address.  Not only to remedy the mistakes that have happened, but for our state to evaluate mines currently being proposed, to begin rebuilding lost public confidence, and to ensure that we have systems in place that protect the health of Minnesotans. 

First, let me throw out a couple of items for a few years back that have been tumbling through my mind lately.  First, when I heard about the mining cancer rates being withheld, I began to recall a story from High Country News.  It was written back when a couple of folks were making big names for themselves by claiming that environmentalism was dead, though the article itself was about whether or not the environmental community had failed the community of Libby Montana (Where were the environmentalists when Libby needed them most?).  Libby, a town that economically sounds much like many Range towns, was home to a vermiculite mine for almost 70 years.  Unbeknownst for a long time was the presence of asbestos fibers in the same rock.  Those fibers were tracked all over town, both through dirt and clothing, and has been killing miners and their families ever since.  The company that operated the mine for its last 30 years knew that their workers were at risk for more than a decade before they started to take action and the mine continued to operate for long beyond that.  State and federal government agencies also knew about the health problems, but failed to take action for far too long.  For full background, see High Country News’s Libby’s dark secret

Second, with the recent revelation that the Department of Health chose to share the cancer information with the mining company almost a week before it shared it with the public reminded me of the MPCA’s actions during the development of a statewide mercury-reduction plan.  While telling members of the environmental community that there was nothing new to discussion, the MPCA was taking revisions from the Chamber of Commerce and friends.  The MPCA seemed to recognize that their actions were wrong, so it is disappointing to read a Department of Health official saying it is no big deal that they shared the data with Cleveland-Cliffs before the public or even the worker’s union.

What are we waiting for?
The health affects from these asbestos-like fibers in the east part of the Iron Range has been going on 40 years now and was renewed a bit a couple of years ago as Northshore Mining Company tried to expand.  There doesn’t seem to be enough research to say what level of risk these fibers bring.  But why not?  We’ve known about the potential for health risks for 40 years.  And now we have 58 diagnosed cases of miners getting sick.  If others haven’t been funding the needed studies, why hasn’t Minnesota?  I think that’s what rubs me most about the Department of Health sitting on this data for a year – this past legislative session was the one to set the budget for the next two years.  While we sit around waiting for federal dollars to come pouring in (and wouldn’t that have been aided by releasing this data?), we’ve missed our best opportunity to get state dollars allocated – and I’m sure it would have been a high priority for the highly-empowered Iron Range delegation. 

It would appear, based on the information Senator John Marty has been using (in the MPR story and on TPT’s Almanac last Friday) that the Department of Health was pretty concerned about the information reaching the public.  And worse, while I was typing this, a Department of Health employee testified during today’s joint Health Committee hearing that agency employees have been actively told not put too many things in writing or e-mails – and that she’s been criticized by those above her for doing so.  What more might have been available to Senator Marty if employees weren’t discouraged from writing down their findings, concerns, or other relevant information?  If they aren’t doing anything wrong over there, why can’t they write their thoughts down?

Going forward
What about PolyMet and the other new mines in development?  They will be digging for different metals (using techniques that have never been proven environmentally benign, but I digress), but still on the eastern part of the range where these fibers are found.  Wouldn’t the release of this data over a year ago have helped in the design of the Environmental Impact Statement now under development for PolyMet?  How will those workers be protected?

On the larger issue, how much damage has been done to our state agencies given the mining, 3M and Atrazine stories of late (on top of the mercury stories and others of the past)?  I believe the vast majority of people working for the PCA, DNR, BWSR and Health do so because they are dedicated to protecting our environment and Minnesotans.  If the citizens of our state do not have faith in these agencies, the ability of these employees to accomplish their jobs – and protect our health and environment – will be severely undermined.  How will Governor Pawlenty’s administration work to restore this faith?

As occurred in the Libby, MT article above, I’ve been wondering about the environmental community’s role in the health discussion going forward.  Our family is typically at loggerheads with mining operations (and thus miners).  Is there a way we can work with miners to ensure their health is protected at the same time we work against any mining operation that might damage our lakes or wetlands?  Would they even want us to?  I guess those are thoughts I’ll have to keep pondering.


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