U.S. Appeals court rules against Northshore MiningA ruling by a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals means that testing will continue at Northshore Mining Co. for fibers in the air that some say cause lung disease.
A ruling by a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals means that testing will continue at Northshore Mining Co. for fibers in the air that some say cause lung disease.
A state mandate for Northshore Mining Co. to keep testing air for asbestos like fibers still stands after a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
In a ruling filed Monday, the appeals court ruled that the federal court system is not the place to decide the issue and that the state regulation, as part of state pollution permits, is a state issue.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in state permits, demands that the taconite mine and plant operations test air for asbestos like fibers. The permits also require the company must use best available technology to keep those numbers below a “medically significant level.’’
Because little or no scientific data is available on what that level is, the state has adopted an air quality comparison first ordered by a federal court judge more than 35 years ago that ordered the mining company to compare fibers in Silver Bay air to fibers in St. Paul air, the so-called control-city standard.
That federal court order has since been dismissed, and North Shore has moved to get the fiber testing removed from state permits. The company failed at all levels of Minnesota courts and now has failed at the federal district and appeals court levels.
Environmental groups had hoped to keep the 1970s federal court order in play. But, short of that, they say the latest court ruling at least upholds the state’s right to require continued air testing.
“The on the ground affect of this for the people up there is that the control city testing requirement will continue, only under the state mandate and not a federal court order,’’ said Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the Minnesota center for Environmental Advocacy, which intervened in the court case to keep the standards in place.
It’s not clear if the company would or could take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. NorthShore and Cleveland Cliffs officials have repeatedly said fibers released from the ore during the taconite pellet- making process are not asbestos and are not a human health threat. Northshore spokeswoman Maureen Talarico did not immediately return a reporter’s request for a comment.
Asbestos-like fibers have been an issue on Lake Superior’s North Shore for more than 40 years. A 1970s federal court decision forced then-Reserve Mining Co. to stop dumping taconite tailings – waste rock from processing iron ore — into Lake Superior because the fibers were found in high levels in the water and may be a threat to human health.
The tailings are now dumped in on-land basins.
The debate continues, however, over whether those same fibers in the air are inhaled by people who work at the mine and plant or live near the mining facilities, and whether the fibers cause lung disease. When federal Judge Miles Lord ruled in 1974 that the fibers posed a potential health risk, there was little data on a safe standard for airborne fibers. Lord ordered air to be tested in St. Paul as a control site to compare with Silver Bay’s air.
State officials say there are still no widely accepted standard for the fibers today and that the fibers inside the rock may be released during taconite mining near Babbitt and during processing at the plant in Silver Bay. The mineral fragments or fibers similar to asbestos have been found only in iron ore from the eastern Mesabi Iron Range, where Northshore is the only active taconite operation.
While significant scientific data clearly show the harm that asbestos fibers cause in human lungs, it’s not clear what harm similar mineral fibers or fragments of different shapes and sizes can cause.
Public cancer records show an unusually high rate of a serious lung disease in Northeastern Minnesota, and anecdotal accounts from Iron Range residents hint at a broader problem associated with taconite operations.