The Belvidere Mountain Asbestos mine is empty and dormant, yet it lies directly in the middle of a heated debate. Residents of two Vermont towns will be voting on whether the mine should become a Superfund site.
A Superfund site is a location of uncontrolled hazardous waste designated by the federal government, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to be cleaned up using federal funds. In the case of the Vermont mine, the hazardous waste is asbestos.
Asbestos has been used for centuries for a variety of commercial purposes around the world. Exposure to asbestos has been widely linked to deadly diseases like mesothelioma, a cancer known for approximately 3,000 deaths per year in the United States.
If the Belvidere mine is cleaned up through the government program, development plans indicate that a biomass electric generation plant will be added in its place.
The construction and opening of the state-of-the-art electric plant is stated to yield job growth and employment opportunities for the surrounding communities.
Vermont’s small towns of Eden and Lowell sit at the foot of the asbestos mountain. Prior to getting included on the federal cleanup list, local approval from both of the towns’ residents is required, which will occur by a March 6 vote on Town Meeting Day.
Details of the Debate
Residents are split on the issue. Some want the site to become a Superfund, others do not.
Supporters of turning the mine into a Superfund say that because the federal government will cover clean-up costs, it would allow the introduction of the new biomass electric generation plant which will stimulate job growth.
Critics question whether the new plant would create jobs. In addition, some who oppose it say that turning the mine into a Superfund site would bring a long disruption and inconvenience to the area and its residents.
Experts estimate cleanup costs at $200 million. With such a significant investment from the government, residents would have to reach a consensus prior to any action at the site.
“The EPA requires it to be a Superfund site before they spend the significant amount of money that needs to be spent there,” said David Halquist, a supporter of the Superfund efforts, is with the Lamoille County Economic Development Corporation (LEDC), the organization behind the biomass electric plant development plans. “I mean this is a site we’re looking at $200 million for cleanup. That’s a large number. Not a number the local communities could carry, not a number the state could carry; it’s really something the federal government would have to carry.”
Halquist said that by allowing Belvidere to be cleaned up through the Superfund program, it would improve the long-term real estate values of the entire surrounding area, benefiting all residents. Despite the potential broad appeal of this argument, some remain skeptical.
The position of the opposition is grounded in doubt on the need for federal involvement. Leslie White, a former board member, has been researching this issue for years and doesn’t think the Superfund plans will pan out as well as some believe.
“I just want people to know if they say yes to Superfund that it’s a very long process and that there is going to be no immediate cleanup and the promise of jobs from a biomass plant are unrealistic,” White said.
Asbestos and the Belvidere Mountain Mine
The mine in question has a long history, dating back from its early operations in the 1900s to its closing in 1993.
The Vermont Department of Health stated in a 2008 report that the mine contributed to health risks to all residents and workers near the mine, in both the cities of Eden and Lowell.
Health issues associated with the mine date back as early as 1973, around the same time when the dangers of asbestos became widely discussed. According to a mineral database and mineralogy reference website, Vermont ranked second in the mining and manufacturing of asbestos behind California at one point, primarily because of asbestos production through Belivdere Mountain.
Between 1996 and 2005, at least five deaths were known to be associated with occupational exposure to asbestos from the Belvidere mine. Asbestosis, a disease of the lungs that involving gradual scarring and is closely associated with asbestos exposure, was linked to all five deaths.
Despite known connections between the toxic substance from the Belvidere mine and respiratory diseases like mesothelioma, some residents in surrounding areas are skeptical of the current health hazards that exist. Because of the long period since operations have taken place there, some don’t believe a health threat still exists.
Residents will have the opportunity to learn more about this issue at upcoming LEDC meetings (February 22 in Eden, February 23 in Lowell).
If residents favor the initiative, Vermont’s governor will work with the EPA towards getting Belvidere listed on the EPA’s Superfund list.