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Asbestos found in proposed iron mine -- would workers be at risk?

Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of Cline Resource and Development Group, has made preliminary steps toward the development of a $1.5-billion taconite, or iron ore, mine near Ashland, Wisconsin. The project had already sparked controversy over its possible environmental impact, because the local geology suggests the presence of sulfide rock. If released into local streams and wetlands, opponents say, it could harm waterways and downstream habitats.

When the state Geological and Natural History Survey analyzed the rock, however, it found something a bit more alarming -- asbestos, in the form of a mineral called grunerite. The state's Department of Natural Resources has confirmed the presence of asbestos, but is still too early to determine how much of the carcinogenic fiber is present on the mine site. Earlier this year, Gogebic Taconite stated it believed there was no asbestos in the area rock.

How much of a danger the asbestos-laden grunerite might pose to mine workers and local residents is not yet known. A hydrogeologist at the Department of Natural Resources noted that asbestos particles have been found in some mining sites elsewhere without ultimately turning out to be a problem. The important question is how widespread that grunerite may be.

During mining, the asbestos fibers would become airborne, which could presumably cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses unless the dust were carefully controlled. The hydrogeologist, while pointing out he does not personally oppose the project, stressed that it's essential to have a full scientific understanding of the area's geology before moving forward with the project.

Gogebic hasn't even filed a formal application for the project. When it does, it will have to do studies on how much asbestos is present in the rock and create a formal plan on how it would effectively monitor and control airborne asbestos fibers.

Are potential mine workers at risk? We don't yet know. A multimillion-dollar study released this year showed that iron miners are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma generally. They weren't able to show whether taconite causes mesothelioma regardless of the presence of asbestos, but there is little doubt that iron ore laced with asbestos would.

If it turns out asbestos is pervasive in the local geology and the company can't effectively keep workers from being exposed to asbestos pervasive fibers on or near the site, it's quite probable their health would be at risk.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Asbestos fibers found in rock of proposed Wisconsin mine," Lee Bergquist, Oct. 7, 2013

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