Vermont state officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached a settlement with the Vermont Asbestos Group (VAG) recently. VAG owns an inactive asbestos mine that poses an ongoing pollution threat to the northern Vermont towns of Eden and Lowell. Under the agreement, VAG will pay past and future cleanup costs and take responsibility for maintaining the site, including keeping people away from it.
The mine, which is located on Belvidere Mountain, began operations in the early 1900s. In 1975, a group of mine workers bought it from GAF Corporation and formed VAG. The mine closed in 1993.
Erosion at facilities on the site continues to raise concerns about contamination in the area, particularly for local waters and wetlands. A state Department of Environmental Conservation analyst, John Schmeltzer, says more expensive solutions would prevent erosion of asbestos tailings, while less expensive solutions would merely contain the pollution.
That’s why the hard-won settlement is so important for cleanup efforts.
Lack of Money and Trust Present Obstacles to Cleanup
In a July 2011 letter to residents, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David K. Mears warned that mine erosion threatened area waters. In particular, he noted “there is ongoing erosion of the asbestos tailings and waste rock at the site that is impairing downstream waters and wetlands.”
His letter also explained that the state was considering putting Vermont on the Superfund List because it didn’t have enough resources for “stabilization measures” to prevent asbestos waste from traveling farther downstream. In the months that followed, the state distributed information and held town meetings about placing the area on the National Priorities List, also known as the Superfund List.
But, as Asbestos.com previously reported, residents rejected that idea.
They were reportedly concerned about their property values and disruption from cleanup crews. Their stance may sound strange, given the serious risks to local residents, wildlife and property. Outsiders might have expected the residents to be eager for federal funding, since the state doesn’t have the resources to fund the cleanup and, according to the state attorney general, neither does VAG.
But an earlier government misstep likely made residents suspicious of state officials’ claims about the need for Superfund status. In November 2008, the state’s Health Department and Agency of Natural Resources warned the public about a study that “found statistically significant associations between illness, asbestosis and lung cancer, and residence in  towns within a 10-mile radius of the mine.” Understandably, the study triggered alarm.
A few weeks later, the Department of Health announced that the study’s lung cancer findings were wrong due to errors in the research data. After angry residents began doubting the rest of the report, the state Legislature forced the Department of Health to revisit the study. This time, it found that the asbestosis deaths and hospitalizations included in the study were likely caused by occupational asbestos exposure, not by living near the mine.
Settlement Agreement Not Ideal
Vermont, the EPA and VAG reportedly worked on a settlement for two years. According to the Stowe Reporter, VAG President Howard Manosh says the agreement is “not really all that I’d like to see [in an agreement], but it’s the best we can do.” Vermont Attorney General Thea Schwartz seemed to share that view based on her statement reported by Vermont Public Radio. She indicated that VAG did not have the resources to pay for the cleanup.
That’s why an insurance provision may prove to be the most important term in the agreement. VAG has agreed to cooperate with Vermont and the EPA in recovering past and future cleanup costs from its insurance policies. Future response costs are estimated at around $30 million.
Although residents blocked the Superfund designation, the EPA is a party to the settlement because it has helped with cleanup efforts. Under the agreement, it will recover more than $3 million spent for past cleanup efforts. The state will recover $174,620 of its past response costs.
VAG will also have to pay the state $5000 per year, as well as maintain and keep people away from the site for 10 years.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont must approve the settlement. According to a statement by the Vermont attorney general’s office, the settlement is also subject to a 30-day public comment period that began Sept. 9.