(by Janna Goerdt, Duluth News Tribune, published online October 4, 2009)
Sam Rickes breathed in, and he breathed out. He held his breath once, twice, and three times. His wife, Judy, did the same at the University of Minnesota’s suite of offices at Virginia Regional Medical Center — and now both will wait until the University of Minnesota compiles the results of their voluntary testing as part of the Taconite Worker Health Study.
Sam Rickes worked for more than 35 years at the Eveleth Taconite plant near the couple’s home in Forbes. He worked most of those years as a machinist, which took him to nearly every corner of the taconite mine. And he often worked in dusty conditions.
“There aren’t too many places out there that don’t have dust,” he said.
Part of the university’s study will try to isolate any connection between a miner working in those dusty conditions and the chances of developing lung diseases later in life. Researchers want to see if those who live with miners share any such risk — which is why Judy took part in the study — and if those who work at the mines for only a short time can be affected. The Rickeses’ son, who worked at the mine for a summer, also has been invited to be part of the study.
Sam Rickes said he was eager to be tested — though, at age 67, he feels healthy enough. He and Judy will receive their test results in about a month. The university maintains volunteers’ confidentiality, though study participants are free to discuss their own results. Rickes said he hopes many of the miners selected for the study will participate.
“One thing I really want to see, if there’s really something in the ore that is harming the workers out there, that they make it a better, safer place to work,” Rickes said.
Life with lung disease follows career in mines
Sometimes the airborne dust was so thick at the former Erie Mining Co. in Hoyt Lakes that Joe Scholar ordered the men working in the building to get out.
“There were times when you couldn’t see,” remembers Scholar, who was a supervisor in the ore dressing, crushing and milling buildings, among other areas.
Workers were supposed to wear respirators, which in the 1940s and ’50s had one simple filter that snapped into the bottom of the mask, but the devices were hot and made it hard to breathe, Scholar said. Many workers simply didn’t wear the respirators, and anyway, Scholar said, the rule was rarely enforced.
Today, at age 86, Scholar thinks a lot about the dust he spent a career inhaling. He has spent years pushing for someone to study the problem, even as he has dealt with his own lung disease. In 1989, Scholar collapsed while he was helping his daughter move. He later learned he had asbestosis, and the casing around one of his lungs had hardened.
Scholar had been worried about working in that dust and about the other miners who did, too. Now, he wants some answers, even beyond what the University of Minnesota hopes to learn from the current Taconite Worker Health Study.
He asks: Why not test the water in the mine pits that dot the Iron Range — pits from which some municipalities draw their drinking water? Why not study the particles dumped in tailings basins around the Range? Why not focus the testing on those who worked in the dustiest parts of the mine?
Scholar said he used to butt heads with union officials who were afraid the mines would shut down if a link between ore dust and respiratory disease was proven. And even today, Scholar said, younger workers don’t seem that worried about health effects from working in the mines; not when good-paying jobs with benefits are the trade-off.
“People on the Iron Range will kill themselves to have a job,” Scholar said.
Cancer deaths aren't just statistics
The numbers couldn’t be more personal to Dave Trach.
The former Erie Mining Co. employee, longtime union official and board member of the national Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees has taken long looks at the data for Northeastern Minnesota miners who have died of mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
“Those people working with the statistics — those are faces that pop up for me,” Trach said. He knew many of the men who lived in the mines and, decades later, suffered and died from some form of lung disease.
Trach worked in all areas of the Erie mine during his 38-year mining career.
While working as a crane operator high above the mine, he remembers looking down into dust-choked buildings. He remembers seeing workers who were replacing the steel liners in the ore crushers dip their bare hands into bags of an asbestos-laced powdery product — though no one knew it contained the harmful material — to mix with grease and seal gaps in the liner.
And he remembers the day he was diagnosed with asbestosis.
He said he feels “pretty good,” good enough to continue his nationwide work on behalf of retired steelworkers, good enough to continue as mayor of the tiny town of Leonidas, located near both mine pits and mine dumps outside of Eveleth. He is hoping the current University of Minnesota study proves worthwhile.
“If we don’t get some answers, I don’t know where we go from here,” Trach said. And while mine work today is governed by more health and safety regulations than decades ago, and Trach said working miners today are at least more aware of the possible health risks, plenty of questions remain.
“I hope, once and for all, people can go into the mines and be OK,” Trach said.