Northland College Geoscience Professor Tom Fitz did not set out to become the key researcher of asbestos-like fibers in the Penokee Hills, the site of a proposed mine.

In the absence of thorough scientific inquiry, he stepped in. Literally. In the last few years, he has walked nearly every inch of the Penokee Hills.

“It appears that I’m trying to stop a mine,” he said. “I’m not. I’m trying to find answers to important questions, and because of that, I’ve become a scientist for the community.”

With the assistance of student Marissa Fish, who graduated last May, he discovered asbestos—lots of it. “No matter what criteria you use, it’s out there and some of it is textbook,” he said.

In past years, there’s been debate whether there was asbestos, Fitz said.  Fitz and Fish ended the debate when they presented their findings at the conference Asbestos-Like Mineral Fibers in the Upper Midwest: Implications for Mining & Health, in Duluth October 6-7.

“There’s enough of it—stretches where asbestos is nearly everywhere— that we can no longer disregard it,” Fitz said.

What does it mean?

“It means that we now know for sure it is out there, but more research needs to be done,” Fitz said. “Asbestos doesn’t exclude the possibility of mining—there are ways to protect workers, but it’s a real hazard.”

In some places, Fitz says that the asbestos is very obvious and in other places it’s very fine-grained and you have to look at it with a microscope.

“We’ve known about this mineral for a long time, but no one has ever called it asbestos,” he said.

Fitz intends to turn over his research to the US Geologic Survey who will continue the research. Although USGS was not involved in Fitz’s research, the USGS has allowed Northland College to use its microbeam laboratory in Denver.

“I’m so happy that USGS is stepping in,” he said. “They have the facilities and clout to do something with this.”

Fitz will continue to do research looking for asbestos in soils in the Penokee Hills.

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