The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced Monday that asbestos is present in a rock sample taken from the proposed site of an iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The asbestoform fibers were found in the mineral grunerite. Asbestos and asbestoform fibers present a danger to public health if they are inhaled or ingested, which may result in the development of mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that most often affects the lining of the lungs or the abdomen. In rare cases, it may also affect the lining of the heart. There is no known cure for mesothelioma.
The proposed iron ore mine is a $1.5 billion project by Hurley-based Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), which is a unit of a larger coal mining business based in Florida. The mine could stretch for four miles, mining iron from a large open pit.
The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey confirmed the presence of asbestos in rock samples from the proposed mine site. Larry Lynch, a hydrogeologist at the DNR, told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that Gogebic would be required to conduct studies on the extent of asbestos in the rock, and present a plan for containing airborne emissions from the mine site if the company files a formal application to proceed with the iron ore mine project.
Already, area residents had voiced concerns that the mine would endanger streams and habitats downstream of the site through the release of acidic sulfide rock. The asbestos discovery only heightens concerns about the project.
Awareness about the possible link between iron ore mining and mesothelioma has been raised in recent years when a greater than average number of taconite miners in Minnesota were diagnosed with mesothelioma. This resulted in the Minnesota State Legislature funding the five-year, $4.9 million Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study. The results were mixed, with scientists from the University of Minnesota proving a definite increased risk of contracting mesothelioma among iron ore miners, but no definitive link between taconite mining operations and mesothelioma.
At the end of July, Gogebic submitted a letter to the DNR addressing some concerns about the bulk sampling plan for the site, which included the notation that “… asbestiform minerals are not likely to be present in the Gogebic Iron Range near Mellen, WI.”
Following the confirmation that asbestos is present in the minerals at the mine site, University of Wisconsin Geochemist Joseph Skulan and Northland College Geologist Tom Fitz visited Site Number Four at the proposed mine location. They easily found asbestoform grunerite, also known as brown asbestos. Fitz told The Daily Press the grunerite is “abundant” at the site.
According to Gogebic’s bulk sampling plan, the company plans to remove more than 400 tons of rock from the site during bulk sampling. Skulan estimated grunerite formed about 1 percent of the rock present at the test site, which would mean the sample size would contain about four tons of gunerite asbestos.
Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz told Fox 11 News the company will conduct studies to determine the extent of the asbestos in the rock. He said the company’s previous assumption that it would not find asbestos at the site was based on information it had received from consultants and decades-old exploratory work conducted on the site by U.S. Steel.