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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Asbestos Fibers in Wisconsin Iron Ore, Or Not ?

A news article this week reports the discovery of "asbestos" (grunerite) in the ore in an area targeted for a new iron mine in Wisconsin. Local citizens reportedly now are even more concerned about the mine, and the would be mining companies are on the defensive for having predicted "no asbestos." In a different article, the discovers say the fibers are brown and "abundant." In other words, it’s a fair amount of a potential amphibole fiber. The news is not shocking – fibers of this sort are not new to iron mining areas, as described back in 1979 by Messrs. Langer, Rohl, Nicholson, Selikoff and others.

The point of mentioning the article here? One point is that asbestos – in all its forms – is more widespread than many believe. The second point is that the various forms of the "miracle fiber" are increasingly observed, and reported. Public concern usually follows. Propensity to sue will not be dropping any time soon. See below for further specifics from the article:

"Asbestos mineral fibers have been found in a rock sample at the site of a proposed iron ore mine by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The agency said Monday that asbestos was confirmed by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey recently after a DNR geologist visiting the site last spring suspected the rock contained telltale fibers of the known carcinogen.

The findings are sure to figure into the ongoing controversy over Gogebic Taconite’s proposed $1.5 billion iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties, especially after the company said earlier this year it didn’t believe asbestos was present in the rock.

Gogebic, based in Hurley and a unit of a larger Florida-based coal mining concern, has been conducting preliminary work as part of its plans to apply for permit to mine iron ore from a large open pit that could run for 4 miles on the Gogebic range.

Until now, environmental questions have revolved around other issues. The most notable is the potential of sulfide rock that could cause an acidic condition that could harm streams and habitat downstream.

The discovery of asbestos in the local rock has come under fire from critics and is sure to be raised by opponents as a reason to reject the mine. One group, the Penokee Hills Education Project, hiked to the site on Monday to survey wetlands. It issued a statement saying the project should be tabled because of asbestos issues.

But the DNR cautioned that the extent of the mineral known as grunerite on the potential mine site is not yet known.

If Gogebic goes ahead with its formal application, the company would be required to conduct studies on the extent of asbestos in the rock, how it would control the spread of airborne emissions and how emissions from mining operations would be monitored, according to Larry Lynch, a hydrogeologist at the DNR.

Lynch said the presence of grunerite was not surprising, because asbestos particles have been found in other iron mining regions. The bigger question: How widespread is it in the rock?

"The main concern is airborne particulates," Lynch said. "It will come down to how effective their dust control will be."

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