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State And Asbestos Mine Owners Reach Settlement

AP/Toby Talbot

The state has reached a settlement with the owners of an inactive asbestos mine that officials say poses an ongoing pollution threat in two Northern Vermont towns. 

It’s unclear, though, how much money the settlement will provide to pay for the cleanup.

Asbestos is a carcinogen and the mine, in the towns of Eden and Lowell, is the state’s biggest hazardous waste site.

A civil suit filed by the state against the mine’s owners was an attempt to recover the past and future costs of dealing with the remaining asbestos ore at the mine.  the clean-up and mitigation costs could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Vermont Assistant Attorney General Thea Schwartz says the settlement reflects the reality that the mine’s owner, the Vermont Asbestos Group, doesn’t have the resources to pay for the clean-up.

“The federal government looked at the company’s finances and reviewed them and the settlement is based on their ability to pay,” Schwartz says.

There are several provisions in the settlement.  In terms of recovering the money necessary to clean up the mine site, Schwartz says it requires the company to help secure it from its insurers.

“We will work diligently with the federal government and the Vermont Asbestos Group and we will work as hard as we can to get what we can,” says Schwartz.

The work done at the mine so far involves erosion control.

John Schmeltzer, an environmental analyst with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says the steps taken until now are short term measures.

“I believe there’s going to be a point in time where they are no longer going to be effective and we’re either going to have to replace them or do something different.  The challenging part of that is that does take resources,” says Schmeltzer.

Schmeltzer says how much money the insurers provide will likely affect how much the state and federal governments can do at the mine:  Ranging from expensive solutions like stabilizing the piles of ore at the site to prevent erosion, to less expensive approaches that would involve better containing the eroding asbestos tailings.

Schmeltzer says some work can’t wait.  This fall the federal Environmental Protection Agency will be at the site to try and contain one potential source of pollution.

“There is one building that is holding about 17,000 cubic yards of dry asbestos ore, and the roof is peeling off.  We’re concerned that all that dry ore could potentially be released to the environment,” he says.

Last year Eden and Lowell voters rejected a proposal to designate the mine a Superfund site, which would have made  it eligible for federal money.

Residents were wary of the impact of the Superfund designation and mistrustful of the government in the wake of a 2008 state study that warned of the health effects of the asbestos from the mine.  The study was withdrawn when questions were raised about the research it was based on.

The state has recovered some money for clean-up from an earlier settlement with the prior owner of the mine.