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Pawlenty supports mesothelioma studies

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent a letter to Northeastern Minnesota legislators Thursday informing them that he has directed the state health department to work with the University of Minnesota on three different studies related to mining health issues.

The studies will look at the 58 cases of mesothelioma identified in Iron Range miners to deter-mine if there is a relationship between taconite dust exposure and their deaths.

Another study will seek to determine if there has been any effect from the dust on miners' respiratory health, while the third study will compare iron miners' mortality rates with state and national records to identify diseases related to dust exposure.

If the studies move forward, they would potentially be the largest and most comprehensive on miners' health issues in the state's history.

But funding is still needed and the cost for the studies is not yet known. Pawlenty said his ad-ministration will "work with the Legislature to fund the studies," but when that will happen isn't certain.

Some Iron Range lawmakers have called for a special session to seek funding, but in his letter Pawlenty rebuked that. "It appears the funding for the studies will be needed at about the same time the Legislature convenes in February 2008," he wrote.

He didn't say when the studies would conclude.

"I'd like to see something done as soon as possible," said Rep. David Dill of Crane Lake. "If that's the best we can do, so be it."

Pawlenty directed the health department to use money already in its budget to work with the university to develop protocols for the studies. After those have been developed, he said the univer-sity would conduct the studies.

That pleased Iron Range legislators, many of whom still distrust the health department after it recently acknowledged withholding research for a year showing new cases of deaths among Iron Range miners from mesothelioma, a rare, asbestos-related cancer.

Sen. Thomas Bakk of Virginia said the health department should be involved in the studies only "where the university thinks they need some assistance."

"I have a serious lack of confidence in the department of health," he said. "I don't think they can play a lead role [in the study]."

Northland legislators were happy to see that the governor was moving forward with his support of the study, but questioned why he's doing this now.

"I think he's doing what's necessary, but it's a little too late," said Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth. "This is information that should have been out a year ago. The studies should have started then, not now."