Guest Commentary: Much remains on tailings studyOn the surface, the use of taconite tailings for highway and construction projects appears to be a straightforward application. Beneath the surface, the application is not that simple.
By: LeRoger Lind President, Save Lake Superior Association, Two Harbors, Lake County News Chronicle
On the surface, the use of taconite tailings for highway and construction projects appears to be a straightforward application. Beneath the surface, the application is not that simple.
Taconite tailings from Northshore Mining waste are laced with asbestos-like fibers. These fibers have been determined to be as toxic to humans as classic asbestos fibers by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. The fibers have been studied since the 1970s.
Inhalation can cause lung disease. Their toxicity relative to asbestos fibers has been established through testing animals for tumor formation and also by comparison of critical physical characteristics. The testing and analysis has been conducted by senior agency scientists. These are not the opinions of laymen or results derived from the selective interpretation of technical literature developed by others.
Blending the tailings into aggregates does not remove the fibers from the environment. Over a period of time, road wear and road material recycling would release the small, light fibers into the atmosphere of the surrounding residences and communities. This is commonly referred to as “fugitive dust.”
Fiber monitoring equipment would not be available to detect them and no analysts would be available to determine their toxicity. The fugitive dust from the Milepost 7 waste storage basin and the processing plant are monitored and regulated in the communities surrounding Northshore Mining for good reason. The original legal order controlling the level of these fibers in ambient air originated during the Reserve Mining court case. This order might have been rescinded had the companies and agencies involved chosen to fund the studies required to develop a health-based standard for fiber exposure but that has not happened.
The current University of Minnesota studies are not designed to develop a health-based standard for fiber exposure since they do not identify individual fibers or assess their potential harm to the public.
Historically, the local units of government in Lake County and the Iron Range have discounted the most relevant research establishing the toxicity of these fibers. The local courts have integrated the company’s opinion on the lack of potential for harm from these fibers into their legal orders to the extent that even environmental review has been denied.
The Reserve Mining case made us aware of the dangers of exposure to these fibers in our air and water. The real tragedy in this saga is that the best evidence concerning the dangers of the distribution of these fibers into the communities and roads of Lake County and beyond has not been accepted.
The evidence developed by the EPA should be recognized and utilized to establish a health-based standard for exposure to asbestos-like fibers emanating from taconite processing and waste storage. The use of taconite waste in road building materials is not good public health policy.