Vermont Health Department to Update Asbestos Mine Report

February 17, 2009

Pressured by community members and lawmakers, Vermont health officials will further investigate the possible health risks of a closed asbestos mine after an earlier report erroneously found a higher-than-expected incidence of lung cancer among nearby residents.

New data found by residents and yet to be confirmed by the state could show that no one died from the lung disease asbestosis, a thickening and scarring of lung tissue caused by asbestos, as a result of living near the former Vermont Asbestos Group mine in Eden, officials said Friday. The department expects to publish its findings by April 1.

A community group that questioned the state’s earlier study has performed its own research suggesting that the deaths may be linked to on-the-job asbestos exposure, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Wendy Davis said.

A report the agency released in November showed residents who lived near the mine had higher-than-normal rates of contracting or dying of asbestosis. Five deaths, including two of mine workers, and 14 hospitalizations were reported, from 1995 to 2006 in the 13 towns within 10 miles of the mine.

The Health Department also originally reported that it found a higher rate of lung cancer, but later announced that that finding was wrong.

That error and questions about how the study was performed prompted heated community meetings with state officials and public outcry from residents who worried about the safety of their communities and whether their property values would plunge.

Critics also charge the report was incomplete.

“It felt to me like the evidence that the Health Department was stating wasn’t substantiated enough for them to have released a report,” said Leslie White, 51, of Eden, a member of the community group.

“First and foremost we want to know we live in a healthy community,” said Neil Johnston, 52, of Hyde Park. “And if we believe the medical information shows we do, then we wouldn’t want misinformation about that so that people think our property’s not worth much.”

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, but few have measured the risk of disease to others, according to the Health Department.

The state’s study suggested that residents may have been exposed to asbestos but doesn’t have information about current exposure. Residents have been warned to stay away from the mine and its residue — estimated to be about 30 million tons — left behind from past mining.

Johnston and a small group of residents looked into whether the three other deaths were also from occupational exposure and how many patients were involved in the 14 hospital discharges, information that the Health Department didn’t provide.

“Those 14 could literally be one person who’s been in and out of the hospital 14 times or it could be five people who have been in three or two times each. And that’s a pretty important question. There are challenges with the data,” Johnston said.

The group found that at least one of the other people who died worked in shipbuilding elsewhere, and could have been exposed to asbestos on that job.

Residents also testified before the Legislature, prompting state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, to introduce a resolution calling for the Health Department to update its study by April 1. The Senate unanimously passed the resolution Friday.

“If (the department) did not agree to change the report to reflect the research done by Leslie White … our resolution would have been much more critical, and we would have asked for the report to be withdrawn,” Illuzzi said.

The state has spent about $200,000 assessing and containing the contamination. Last year the federal Environmental Protection Agency spent about $2 million to keep the tailings from damaging nearby waterways.

The state estimates the cleanup 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.

Vermont Asbestos Group’s attorney said the company has been working with the state for the last 1 1/2 years to address its concerns, but that the company has little money.

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