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Residents Question White Dust From Plant

Neighbors want answers before Minnesota's USG Interiors expands; environmental agency says dust from the ceiling tile factory doesn't pose an imminent health threat.

CLOQUET, Minn. (AP) — A plant that manufactures ceiling tiles is planning a $20 million expansion here, but residents first want the company and environmental regulators to address the white dust that sometimes escapes from the plant and settles on the neighborhood.
 
The powdery material is a byproduct of manufacturing at USG Interiors, which employs about 450 people. Plant manager Bill Schmitt says it's a ''rare, infrequent issue,'' and an official from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says it isn't an imminent health threat.
 
But Pam Line, who sees the dust settle on her car, outdoor furniture and her children's toys, says she wants to know what the long-term health effects might be.
 
''I want to make sure it's not going to someday be causing health problems for me or my kids,'' said Line, who says she sees the dust about six days out of seven. She said it accumulates when it's dry, such as this summer when about a half-inch layer could be found on the ground near her home.
 
Schmitt says the dust contains volcanic ash perlite, calcium carbonate, corn starch and ground-up newspapers. ''All of our materials are safe and benign,'' he said.
 
The MPCA has looked at the perlite particles. MPCA compliance coordinator Bob Beresford said most of the particles are large enough to be seen and aren't as likely to be inhaled.
 
''Any airborne dust has the potential to cause health problems,'' Beresford said. ''The samples we have looked at tend to be coarser material. Generally, you can see it pretty readily, but we can't say with confidence'' there are no microscopic particles.

Small tears in the bags that cover air filters likely are causing the dust escapes, Schmitt said. The company plans to spend about $5 million on new equipment to help meet air quality standards as it prepares for the planned expansion, he said.
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