A scientist at the University of Minnesota Duluth has confirmed to Media Trackers that an alleged sample of grunerite found at the site of a proposed iron mine in northern Wisconsin is, in fact, not grunerite. The revelation debunks widely reported claims by Northland College geology professor Tom Fitz, who said in early October that he found grunerite – an asbestiform – at the mine site.
Bryan Bandli of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Scanned Electron Microscopy Laboratory said he was asked by Fitz to review a sample of what he found in the Penokee Hills. After studying the sample at the laboratory, Bandli says the rock sample is not grunerite, and he’s not quite sure what it is.
Fitz’s discovery created a tremendous amount of press last fall. Helping stoke public debate and media coverage were Fitz’s repeated and unequivocal declarations that the samples he found were indeed a form of asbestos known as grunerite. “Long, slender fibers of grunerite are dangerous, and that’s what this is,” he told Wisconsin Public Radio in mid-October.
Reached for comment, Fitz played coy before he stopped responding to questions entirely.
Backing away from his once evangelistic fervor, Fitz admitted, “more studies need to be done” and refused to again unequivocally confirm the rocks are grunerite. Previously, Fitz had no issue with positively identifying the samples as grunerite to members of the public and press.
Fitz did hopefully note that he thinks the rock has some properties similar to what are found in grunerite. “[T]here is some solid evidence for the presence of amosite (asbestiform grunerite) in the Ironwood Iron Formation in Ashland County,” he said.
The UMD laboratory’s conclusion collides with a less in-depth study of the sample conducted by the University of Wisconsin Geology Department. En route to UW testing the sample fell into the hands of a geologist who repeatedly testified against and protested a new iron mine, causing yet another controversy.
Fitz was so sure of his findings he told the Ashland County Mining Impact Committee that, “There isn’t any reason to believe that it [grunerite] is just on the surface. If you see it in four different places it is likely to be found in other places.” According to a Bayfield Today report on the meeting, Fitz expressed his opinion that it was possible the entire taconite deposit is “heavily contaminated with grunerite.”
Northland College President Michael Miller staunchly backed Fitz’s ardent claims saying, “That is what you can expect from Northland College.”
Over and over again Fitz’s authoritative sounding statements have placed him in a now un-enviable position. “What’s really a surprise is the abundance of it, at least in this one location. The grunerite is probably 60% of the rock. That is the richest rock I’ve ever seen,” he told Mike Simonson of Wisconsin Public Radio.
“There is a lot of it, it is fairly coarse grained, and within the beds that are grunerite rich, the rocks are 85 percent grunerite. That is a lot of grunerite,” he told a newspaper in Ashland, Wisconsin.
Another media outlet quoted him saying, “I’ve seen grunerite in other iron formations in Michigan and Minnesota. This is the most grunerite I’ve ever seen in one place and that rock is probably 60 percent grunerite.”
Before an Iron County crowd, Fitz shared a slick slide presentation in December confirming he thought the rocks he found were grunerite.
The claimed discovery led the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to change the way Gogebic Taconite, the mine company, is allowed to collect some rock samples for environmental studies.
What happens next is unclear. With the sample now found to not be what Fitz once insisted it was, it is likely more testing will occur and environmental groups, DNR regulators and the mine company will continue to hash out other parts of the environmental impact study process.
Whether or not Fitz will publicly reverse his formerly conclusive statements remains to be seen.