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On a stretch of gravel road, Dodge County families ravaged by cancer question nitrate

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Cancer ravaged Brian Bennerotte’s body and those of many around him — his father, five brothers and his sister — as well as others along the gravel road where they grew up in southeast Minnesota.

The cancers just seemed to proliferate down the peaceful 2-mile stretch of County Road B in Dodge County, Bennerotte and his childhood friend Scott Glarner said. By their count, 13 people who lived on the road once lined with dairy farms near West Concord have contracted some type of cancer in the past few decades.

They know they have been exposed to a lot of farm chemicals in their lives, and a link to all the cancers will probably never be found. But Bennerotte said he keeps coming back to one thing: The high levels of nitrate in the water from their private wells, from farm fertilizers and manure.

“That’s the only common denominator here,” said Bennerotte, now 60.

Their “Cancer Road” story was first reported by Keith Schneider, chief correspondent at the Michigan-based nonprofit environmental news outlet Circle of Blue. The Dodge County water test results he obtained for 18 properties on or near County Road B showed a pattern of elevated nitrate in many of the private wells since the mid 1980s. The tests were voluntary or taken when a property sold. All but about a dozen of the 54 water tests showed elevated nitrate, with some results double the state and federal safety limit.

The types of cancers on the road aren’t the types medical experts generally consider related and part of a cancer cluster. And while the International Agency for Research on Cancer deems nitrate to be a “probable carcinogen,” only a few of the different cancers on County Road B have a researched association with nitrate-contaminated water. Those include non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, colon and kidney cancers. Some of the cancers have not been studied for a nitrate connection.

The rare public disclosure by the County Road B families highlights how far the understanding of health impacts of nitrate-contaminated water has expanded beyond blue baby syndrome, the rare and potentially fatal disease that drove the country’s nitrate health limit of 10 milligram per liter of water officially set in 1992.

More recent research has shown drinking water with nitrate levels above 10 milligrams to be most strongly linked to colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and neural tube defects, according to Mary Ward, senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

A team at the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, for example, is studying the role nitrate-contaminated water may be playing in Nebraska’s high rate of childhood cancers. That kind of research doesn’t appear to have happened in Minnesota although Minnesota’s pediatric cancer rate is second-highest in the 12-state Midwest, just behind Nebraska, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Leslie Stayner, professor emeritus of epidemiology at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, analyzed data from Denmark and found evidence of an increasing risk of central nervous system cancers, low birth weight, preterm birth and some birth defects in children exposed prenatally to nitrates in water. Importantly, these adverse health effects were found among children who were prenatally exposed to levels below the country’s current 10 milligram nitrate standard.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that the current standards are not sufficiently protective,” Stayner said.

The Minnesota Department of Health said this is the first they’ve heard of the County Road B concerns. Dodge County cancer rates haven’t been higher than the state’s rate in recent years and are currently lower, department spokesman Scott Smith said. Smith urged people with concerns to contact the state agency and check its Cancer and the Environment web page.

The agency recently set new health risk limits for more than 30 contaminants in Minnesota’s groundwater — but not nitrate. That shocked Jean Wagenius, a retired longtime state lawmaker and Minneapolis DFLer who told the agency the nitrate standard should be lowered. In its reply, the Department of Health said it has “growing concern” about the health impacts but the science just isn’t there to change the nitrate limit.

Dodge County is one of eight counties in southeast Minnesota that environmental groups have requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency take emergency action on under the Safe Drinking Water Act, saying local regulation has failed to reduce nitrate levels and is creating an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to human health.

Despite the fact that so much water in Minnesota is contaminated with nitrate, there is very little current state research into the health impacts. The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group has estimated that a half-million Minnesotans drink nitrate-tainted water.

A Mayo Clinic team recently studied data on nitrate-contaminated groundwater in southeast Minnesota counties — although not Dodge County. They didn’t look at cancer, but found associations between nitrate and a range of childhood maladies such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bronchiectasis, thyroid disorders, suicide and attention deficit disorders, according to their report this spring in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Bennerotte and Glarner want the nitrate limit lowered. State and local authorities need to take more action on potential health damages, they said.

“We can’t stop what happened, but they can prevent something else,” Bennerotte said.

Bennerotte lives in New Ulm now and works as a long-haul trucker. He recalled watching as a teen in 1980 when his father, Howard, was taken on a stretcher from their home on County Road B to the hospital. It was one of the most wrenching things he ever endured, he said. His father never came home. He died of kidney cancer.

Just three years later, Bennerotte was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, with a tumor the size of a basketball wrapped around his heart and lungs. He was just 20. It was inoperable, and he endured 3½ years of chemotherapy and radiation. He still battles effects from the treatment that his Mayo doctor warned him about, he said, telling him, “What cured you today will kill you later on.”

Cancer spread through the family. One of his brothers got prostate cancer. Another got colon cancer and died of Parkinson’s disease. Another brother, who moved just across the road, died of multiple myeloma and kidney cancer, and his wife died of leiomyosarcoma, a cancer of smooth muscle tissue. Another brother died of complications from a type of blood cancer called myelodysplastic syndrome. His sister contracted MALT lymphoma in a tear duct, but survived. The only person who escaped cancer was their mother, Marie.

Prostate and pancreatic cancer aren’t known to have associations with nitrate and some cancers in the family either haven’t been studied for that or research was inconclusive.

There is no way to know the nitrate levels in the Bennerotte family’s drinking well when they were growing up. A 1999 test of that well showed 19 milligrams per liter. Across the road, where his brother and wife moved and were later stricken with cancer, a 1990 test showed elevated nitrate around 8 milligrams per liter.

Others on the road fell ill, too. Neighbor Larry Serie died of pancreatic cancer in 1988, according to his daughter Lesa Serie. Another neighbor that Bennerotte and Glarner said had cancer declined to comment.

Glarner, 61, spent most of his life on the road, although he now lives in Dodge Center and works as the postmaster in nearby West Concord. From 2002-2011, multiple tests of the wells at two County Road B properties where Glarner lived showed nitrate generally around 8 to 12 milligrams per liter.

Glarner said he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006. It’s not curable, he said, but he’s in remission and feels like a “ticking time bomb.” His mother contracted breast cancer, although she survived it and died later of dementia, he said. Glarner said he was exposed to glyphosate in the herbicide RoundUp and received a payment, one of more than 100,000 RoundUp settlements.

Still, he said he is convinced that nitrate played a role. If nitrate exists in well water, his understanding is that there are likely other pesticides and herbicides in it, too — a farm water cocktail of chemicals: “Just kind of everything.”

Such combinations need attention, said Paul Wotzka, a semi-retired hydrologist in Wabasha County who co-founded the Minnesota Well Owners Organization. A private well owner who drinks water contaminated with nitrate is probably also drinking 12-18 pesticides, at low levels, he said, pointing to a state Department of Agriculture report.

“That’s what people should be studying,” Wotzka said.

Bennerotte said, too, that nitrate was not the only chemical he was exposed to. His family used malathion in the barn for the flies on their cows, he said, and atrazine on the fields for weeds. Malathion is classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Atrazine, an endocrine disrupter, has been banned in the European Union.

It was all just part of their environment, he said: “We’re just trying to figure this all out.”



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Striking workers shut down Minneapolis Park Board meeting with three-hour protest

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Workers who are striking the Minneapolis Park Board for the first time in the agency’s 141-year history took the fight over their stalled contract negotiations to commissioners Wednesday night, demonstrating at their meeting for three hours straight until the board was forced to adjourn without getting anything done.

Commissioners Becky Alper and Tom Olsen started the meeting by attempting to amend the agenda with a resolution directing park managers to promptly settle with union workers. They asked the Park Board’s negotiating team to offer Local 363 a proposal with market adjustments that union leaders have committed to accepting verbally and in writing, but without the contract takeaways the union calls “poison pills” — such as provisions to reduce the number of stewards, double probation time for new hires and make automatic seniority raises discretionary.

“This unprecedented situation diverts our attention from our primary mission: preserving, protecting‚ maintaining, improving and enhancing parks,” said Alper. “Without this resolution we face as the Park Board a perilous path forward. It’s one with no end in sight. It’s one where we gradually crawl out of this hole while parks deteriorate, where workers’ families are impacted without paychecks and dissatisfaction grows among the public.”

Commissioners Alper, Olsen and Billy Menz supported amending the agenda to allow discussion of the resolution. However, Park Board President Meg Forney, Vice President Cathy Abene and Commissioners Steffanie Musich, Elizabeth Shaffer and Becka Thompson rejected the amendment (Commissioner Charles Rucker was absent).

Workers in the gallery shouted their dissatisfaction, asking why the commissioners refused to end the strike, now in its third week. The work stoppage has disrupted storm cleanup of the parks, canceled concerts at the Lake Harriet bandshell and caused maintenance jams across the system.

The only dissenter to respond was Thompson, who said she did not understand how the contract offer described in the Alper-Olsen resolution would affect the whole system. Menz, who voted to amend the agenda, added that his colleagues did not want to appear unsupportive of their negotiating team, which includes Superintendent Al Bangoura.

Kevin Pranis, Local 363′s marketing manager, said park officials were negotiating like they wanted to break the strike rather than settle it. He said it was only after seven months of stalled negotiations, and a 94% vote by Local 363 membership to authorize a strike, that the park negotiating team locked onto the “poison pill” takeaways.

“What’s happened now is that management has decided, after 140 years of Park Board history there’s never been a strike, that the goal … is now to make sure that for another 140 years no one will consider striking because they got hurt so badly in this strike,” Pranis told commissioners. “That no other union will ever consider going on strike.”

Every time commissioners attempted to move onto other business, park workers and allies from other unions formed a picket line around the board room, chanting “No contract, no peace!” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”

Individual workers spoke directly to commissioners, saying they had received discipline without due process and describing grievances they have pending with managers that likely have not risen to commissioners’ attention.

As the demonstration dragged on without comments from the dais, commissioners ate their dinners and had whispered conversations with each other and park lawyer Brian Rice, while the union ordered dinner from Portillo’s.

Commissioners finally walked out of the room around 8 p.m., three hours after the meeting began, without working through the agenda. Items not acted on included a resolution to transfer $10 million from neighborhood parks across the city to the redesign of North Commons Park, and extension of the lease for the Boys and Girls Club at Phelps Park.

Terryl Brumm, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities, left the meeting early, saying that while the Club’s lease of the Phelps Recreation Center now technically expires, she was confident the Park Board won’t evict them.



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Rochester blocks comments on city social media pages

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ROCHESTER – Residents here with questions or concerns about city government will no longer be able to use official city social media pages to air their grievances.

On Wednesday, the city of Rochester began restricting social media users from leaving comments on posts from its official Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as pages for parks, police and other departments.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the policy is in response to what she described as “counterproductive” activity on the city’s social media pages.

“Discontinuing the use of comments effectively reduces the potential for harmful content and negative interactions because it removes an unmoderated and monitored forum for those activities,” Zelms wrote in the announcement.

Comment sections on city posts were typically not monitored by departments, city officials said, due to “staffing challenges” and a prioritization of resources to other city needs. Rochester Public Schools also no longer allows public comments on its posts.

Mayor Kim Norton, who has spoken previously about the negative interactions she has had online, also disabled comments on her pages on Wednesday. Users will now only be able to react (by emoji) to posts or reshare a post with comments to their own personal pages. Norton said she remains available by phone or email.

“I believe this change will support our efforts to provide information, and also to create a better, safer digital environment for all,” Norton said in a statement.

Within hours of the announcement, threads on other sites began filling up with questions about the legality of the new city policy, with some users suggesting it amounted to censorship.

But Dr. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the city is within its rights to discontinue public comments on its social media channels. Kirtley noted that while local governments cannot block comments based on one viewpoint or another, they are under no obligation to manage a public forum on social media.

“They can decide to discontinue the public forum if they choose,” Kirtley said. “If they do allow public comments, they can only impose reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner. These restrictions must be viewpoint neutral.”

On social media threads — ones not managed by the city — there were a few users who defended the government’s decision to restrict comments, noting that city threads are often cesspools of comments from people trolling and harassing public officials.

But overwhelmingly, users were critical of the move. One commenter wrote that while “the change may simplify some aspects of the city’s social media management … eliminating open dialogue among constituents on the platforms most people use to connect is certainly not going to improve community engagement or help build trust in local government.”



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Judge blocks MPCA from restricting hours at St. Paul iron foundry accused of pollution

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A judge has blocked the state from limiting operating hours and imposing other restrictions intended to reduce air pollution from a St. Paul iron foundry.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Northern Iron, LLC, to limit its daily operations to control airborne lead and particulate matter, which can damage the lungs and circulatory system when inhaled.

But in a ruling issued July 11, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro partially granted Northern Iron’s request for an injunction, preventing the state from enforcing limits on how much metal the company could melt in a day and what hours it could operate. Northern Iron says the agency’s demands would make the foundry go out of business.

The judge left intact other provisions of MPCA’s order, and ordered the business and the agency to work together on a new air permit and installing new pollution control equipment. MPCA has said the business’ own modeling shows it is releasing pollutants at thousands of times the level allowed by law.

Alex Lawton, CEO of foundry owner Lawton Standard, told the Star Tribune that after the ruling, he “felt relief for the folks who were laid off that who wanted to come back to work.” The company announced shortly after MPCA’s order that it would have to cut 15% of its workforce, but is now operating with its full staffing of about 80 employees.

MPCA said in an email sent out shortly after the ruling that it “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.

“We stand ready to hold the company accountable should pollution emissions exceed [air quality] standards, to protect the health company employees and nearby residents,” agency spokesperson Andrea Cournoyer wrote in a statement.

Northern Iron opened at 867 N. Forest St. in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood in 1906. It molds made-to-order components that other companies use in finished products. Lawton Standard bought the business in 2022.

Sidney Pisano, vice chair of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, said the court decision has left the neighborhood feeling “disregarded.”

“It feels like we don’t matter, and I think that’s a sentiment a lot of East Siders have felt for a long time,” she said.

The situation has played out differently than the regulation of another urban iron casting company. Smith Foundry spurred complaints of bad smells and air pollution for years from neighbors in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The EPA took the lead on an investigation there, after a surprise inspection last year, and got the foundry to agree to shut down its furnace and casting operations in a settlement. Some in the area were frustrated it took action by EPA, not MPCA, to address the issues.

In the Northern Iron case, MPCA has led the enforcement, including a $41,500 fine imposed on the foundry last year for changing its pollution controls without reporting it to the state. Lawton said the Smith Foundry case was hanging over the regulation of his own business, and suggested it had encouraged regulators to take a stronger hand.

“I think Smith and certain other factors like that seemed to be omnipresent,” he said.

Since the fine last year, MPCA and the foundry have been discussing how to reduce its emissions. After one round of modelling showed that the particulate matter and lead released were thousands of times higher than federal rules allow, Northern Iron then came up with new calculations to show how the emissions would change if they altered their hours or installed new equipment.

The particulate pollution would still be higher than allowed, and the calculations for lead “seemingly defy the conservation of mass and likely cause an underestimate of lead emissions at some sources,” according to MPCA’s administrative order.

The company contends that it’s not polluting, because monitors stationed around the foundry show the air doesn’t exceed state limits on contaminants. It is still planning to install two air filters and make other improvements at the building, a project that will cost around $2 million, Lawton said.

But Cournoyer said that the foundry’s current permit requires it to use modeling to show it is meeting air quality standards.

The foundry and the state agency will next be in court on Aug. 22, when MPCA will argue to dismiss the case. Northern Iron said it plans to submit a new air permit application by August.

“I feel glad the MPCA is keeping the pressure on,” Pisano said.



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