Study Shows Illness near Vermont Asbestos Mine

December 15, 2008

A new state report has found that people who lived near a former asbestos mine in Vermont had a higher rate of an asbestos-related lung disease than those who didn’t.

The Vermont Health Department studied the health records and death certificates from 1995 to 2006 of the 13 towns within 10 miles of the Belvidere Mountain asbestos mine, concluding that residents who lived near it had higher-than-normal rates of contracting or dying of asbestosis.

But the report, which was originally released in November, was revised Wednesday to show that people in those towns did not have a higher incidence of lung cancer, as researchers previously said.

“Extensive review of the data determined that lung cancer findings for towns within the 10-mile radius are not significantly higher than the rest of the state,” said Dr. Wendy Davis, the state health commissioner.

Chrysotile asbestos, a fibrous mineral, had been mined from Belvidere Mountain since the early 1900s until 1993, when the mine closed.

Inhalation of it has been linked to lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis in workers in many studies, but few have measured the risk of disease to others, according to the Health Department.

The state’s study suggests that residents may have been exposed to asbestos but doesn’t have information about current exposure.

That may worry residents of the towns of Albany, Belvidere, Craftsbury, Eden, Hyde Park, Irasburg, Johnson, Lowell, Montgomery, Newport Town, Troy, Waterville and Westfield.

But several interviewed Thursday said they were more concerned with their property values plunging.

“Who’s going to want to buy it?” said Lewis Jones, 61, who believes his house value has dropped.

Jones, who worked at the mine for five years in the 1970s, said he hasn’t felt any health effects from it. But his cousin died of asbestosis, he said.

Burton Ingalls, 35, of Waterville, who bought a general store here three months ago, said the mine’s been a fixture in the community for generations. His grandfather worked there, as did several uncles, but none of them got illnesses from it, he said.

He’s worried about rumors that the area around the mine will be condemned.

“How are we going to be compensated? It was never disclosed to us that there was any contamination,” he said.

Davis said calculating the risks posed by the mine now is no easy thing. Risks could vary, depending on where people live in relation to the mine and whether they engage in hiking or riding ATVs at the site, as some still do.

“Some of it has to do with the fact that in order to give people that information, we needed to do some additional environmental sampling.

“It may be difficult to make a very specific prediction even from some of those samplings. Some of this is that there isn’t perfect knowledge in the world about how to predict all of the health risks from asbestos exposure,” said Davis.

“Did they recreate on the mine? Do we have meteorological data that would tell us, for example, whether prevailing winds carried asbestos fibers in a direction that would put a particular house or site more at risk than another site? We may not ever get to the point where we can give a thorough risk calculation for each individual, but we are working hard and we are tapping into national expertise to give people the best information we can,” Davis said.

Public meetings planned for Thursday in Lowell and Friday in Eden were postponed Thursday amid weather worries. The National Weather Service posted a winter storm warning calling for up to 14 inches of snow starting late Thursday.

State health and environmental officials, together with experts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, were to speak at the meetings. No new date was set.

Elvern Jones, 92, of Eden, worked at the mine for more than 50 years and said he never got sick from it. Others did, he said.

“Some people it bothers and some it don’t and that’s the way it is. And I was really one of the lucky ones,” he said.

Abestosis is scarring of the lungs, which can cause shortness of breath, cough and chest pain, according to the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Jones said he knew people who worked there four or five years and got asbestosis. “They was done for,” he said.

Jones still lives a few miles from the mine, a desolate 1,500-acre site with mountainous piles of waste rock, abandoned buildings and a barbed wire fence with “no trespassing” signs on it.

The main concern is a huge tailings pile — estimated to be about 30 million tons — left behind from past mining. The enormous pile of waste rock has eroded, with tailings found in wetlands below the site, said John Schmeltzer, the state’s project manager.

The state has spent about $200,000 assessing and containing the contamination and the EPA last year spent about $2 million to keep the tailings from damaging nearby waterways.

But the state estimates the total cost could reach $240 million. It has sued Vermont Asbestos Group, the site’s current owner, and filed a claim in bankruptcy court against G-1 Holdings, a successor to GAF Corporation, which owned the mine from 1936 to 1975, to the cover the cleanup costs.

VAG’s attorney said the company has been working with the state for the last 11/2 years to address its concerns, but that the company has little money.

“We’ve been working closely with the state to assist them to the extent we can financially in the effort, to secure the facility, to prevent any further erosion of surrounding lands and ultimately to work toward a solution to the potential further erosion,” said attorney Ed French of Stowe.


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