According to the Vermont Health Department, the deaths of five people from asbestosis are linked not to their having lived near the now-closed Belvidere Mountain mine in northern Vermont, but to their former employment.
The Health Department report indicates that three of the five deceased – all of whom died between 1996 and 2005 – worked at the mine, located equidistant between Eden and Lowell and about three miles from each. The other two already had the disease before they moved into the area.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Wendy Davis was quick to point out that the study clearly identified the work exposures of the deceased, quoting from this most recent study that expands on an earlier study, which found residents in the area of Belvidere having higher-than-normal rates of asbestosis.
Asbestosis, which scars the lungs and can lead to breathing difficulties and death, is the result of inhaling asbestos fibers. Another, more severe, disease brought on by asbestos is mesothelioma, which commonly remains dormant for decades but results in death in 97 percent of cases, most of them within a year of diagnosis.
This second study is a result of resident’s dissatisfaction with the first study, which Davis admits was limited and did not effectively communicate cause and effect. The newer study has met with greater approval, as residents like Mary Walz of Hyde Park acknowledge that the news is good for surrounding communities, which feared the devaluation of their properties based on the initial report.
Belvidere Mountain first began operations in the 1900s and produced asbestos until it closed in 1993. The mine – the largest asbestos recovery operation in the U.S. – covers 1,540 acres on private land on Belvidere Mountain within the townships of Eden and Lowell, which are about three miles from the mine in nearly opposite directions. Other towns nearby include Belvidere, Montgomery, Westfield, Irasburg, Albany, Craftsbury, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville, all about 10 miles from the mine.
The asbestos ore mined was a chrysotile form of asbestos, and the two tailing piles that still remain are estimated at about 15 million tons each. The original owner was The New England Asbestos Mining and Milling Company, which later sold the property to General Aniline & Film Corporation, or GAF. GAF and its predecessor, Ruberoid, operated the mine from 1936 to 1975, after which VAG purchased it.
In the 1980′s, production began to decline, from a high of 30,000 tons per year to about 10,000 tons. Between 1990 and 1994, in a series of articles, Environmental Working Group targeted VAG’s operations, charging the company with dumping known carcinogens into state waters. In 1993, VAG’s owner, Howard Manosh, was forced to sell the property to G1 Holdings to recapture $125,000 in back taxes incurred in the two previous years.
In 2002, G1 Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both filed claims against all G1 Holding’s assets to the tune of about $240 million to enable remediation. State claims, also filed, vary from $14 million to $210 million, depending on whether the site earns National Priorities listing from the EPA Superfund cleanup program. Late in 2008, both federal agencies mandated G1 Holdings restrict the site from public access, and investigate and abate the placement of certain offsite tailing piles.
The two large tailings piles remain a source of concern, however, even though the EPA has so far spent about $2 million to keep the tailings out of regional waterways – costs its hopes to reclaim from suits filed against VAG and G1 Holdings. In all, the two entities mined and sold roughly 650,000 tons of asbestos ore.
The message from the Vermont Health Department’s newest study is one repeated elsewhere across the country, from Minnesota’s Iron Range to Montana’s Libby Mine, and the message is clear: asbestos is dangerous, and mining it is often a death sentence.