City and state officials are urging a railway company to resume paying all claims from Superior homeowners seeking reimbursement for routine cleanup of taconite dust that comes from a local processing facility.
The dust comes from a conveyor system at the Allouez Taconite Facility in Superior, a site that has been in operation since 1892. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) expanded the conveyor belt around 50 years ago, and according to Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, taconite dust quickly became an issue for the surrounding neighborhood. A group of women organized to demand the company take steps to mitigate dust.
Since then, BNSF has worked out payments with homeowners to clean up taconite dust, although there is no formal agreement for doing so, said Van Sickle.
Layers of the dust end up coating houses and personal property in the area. Research has found that workers with higher exposure to taconite dust are more likely to develop mesothelioma, a type of cancer that often affects the lungs.
"I don't know if you've ever touched taconite dust, but it's sticky, and it's greasy," said Van Sickle. "Our sidewalks are pink. The Osaugie (trail) is pink. It's on pets and fences and campers, boats, play equipment, carpets, window sills. It's everywhere."
Residents began to complain to Van Sickle this summer that their claims were being denied.
After contacting the company, she was informed the company would no longer be paying claims and that homeowners are responsible for maintaining their homes.
"We've just been going back and forth since July trying to find resolution," said Van Sickle.
BNSF maintains there are claims still being paid, although they've "scaled back" payments, according to a statement from spokesperson Courtney Wallace.
"We have identified irregularities that resulted in some claims being paid that were not anywhere near the Allouez facility," said Wallace. "As a result, we're currently reviewing our process to ensure that we are working with property owners who are truly being impacted."
The BNSF facility processes around 11 million long tons of taconite each year. Van Sickle said around 200 residents used to receive anywhere from $200 to $500 in compensation to clean the grime off their homes. Now, she said 24 homes have been selected to receive reimbursement, but homeowners haven't been notified whether they'll receive payment.
Van Sickle and Democratic state lawmakers, including Sen. Janet Bewley, of Mason, and Rep. Nick Milroy, of South Range, have written letters to the company asking them to continue paying homeowners' claims.
"Through no fault of their own, Allouez families must live with taconite dust covering their yards, their houses, and everything in between," wrote Bewley and Milroy. "They rely on these small payments to maintain a good quality of living and ensure they can raise their families in clean, healthy environments. Suspending payments to assist with clean-up jeopardizes the well-being of Allouez families."
In an email to lawmakers, Lydia Bjorge, the company's director of public affairs, said BNSF values its relationship with elected officials but offered no new information on the suspension of payments.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine said discussions between the community and the railroad are ongoing.
"I think negotiations are in a good place, and I expect some kind of resolution," said Paine.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the company's rail volumes, and revenues were down 14% in the first six months of this year compared to 2019. The company still maintained $2.3 billion in profits during that time.
Van Sickle said residents welcome the jobs that BNSF provides to the city of Superior.
"I'm hoping that this can be rectified soon," she said. "Particularly, in this year, it's been financially challenging for everybody."
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