On Friday, January 15, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that regional landowner Leonard Prive can sue the Vermont Asbestos Group’s (VAG’s) president for contamination of his property in Eden and Lowell as a result of discarded asbestos tailings from the former VAG mine on Belvidere Mountain in northern Vermont.
It is a landmark ruling, based on Prive’s contention that VAG President Howard Manosh personally directed how and where the tailings (i.e., rock left over from mining) should be discarded, and how the asbestos left in the rock would be contained.
According to the Vermont Supreme Court, Manosh’s decision did indeed end up contaminating Prive’s adjacent property via the pile of waste rock left abandoned when the mine closed in 1993. That is, rain and snow and the gradual movement of water deposited asbestos over Prive’s soil and into ponds and wetlands on the property, since no adequate provision for containing the toxic waste was ever made.
Expect the ruling to attract more outraged landowners, as residents of the two towns (and other locations around the mine) attempt to find a responsible party for the poisoning of their property. The company last in control of the property, G-1 Holdings, is bankrupt, but thanks to the court’s decision – that there are some actions in which both companies and their officers can be held responsible – Manosh (who owned the largest portion of VAG) stands as a likely candidate for area landowner’s ire.
The mine, located on a 1,540-acre site in the towns of Eden and Lowell, operated for most of the last century (most recently under the ownership of the Vermont Asbestos Group). It was originally operated by the New England Asbestos Mining and Milling Company, in 1899, the first company in the United States to mine asbestos.
Operations were suspended in 1902, and resumed in 1920. The asbestos operation was then sold (in 1939) to the Vermont Product Corporation (VPC), a subsidiary of the Rubberoid Company. After that, the mines were bought by General Alkaline and Film.
In 1974, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demanded the company install anti-pollution equipment, the company was taken over by employees, who bought 80 percent of General Alkaline and Film’s stock and resumed business as usual.
By 1983, health concerns about the mining and use of asbestos had demand down, and the Belvidere Mountain mine was only operating part time. By 1987, production was down to 10,000 tons, from its all-time high of 35,000 tons per year in the 1970s. Then came the final blow, when – between 1990 and 1993 – the company was charged with illegally dumping carcinogens into Vermont waters. By that time VAG was primarily owned by Manosh, who was forced to sell to G-1 to collect the $125,000 in back taxes he owed.
Before its closure in 1993, it was the second largest asbestos mine in the United States, producing during its peak as much as 98 percent of chrysotile mined in the United States.
In total, 23 locations are affected by the tailings, all within two affected watersheds. In 2004, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources began assessing the VAG site in response to landowner’s complaints about the erosion of tailings piles into nearby ponds and wetlands.
A 2008 study under the joint auspices of the Vermont Department of Health and the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, determined that the higher rates of asbestos-related deaths in the area were not due to the mine – a decision later called into question when the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC) reviewed the data and concluded that there was a higher incidence of asbestos-related hospital discharges in the area (i.e., Eden, Lowell and the other 11 towns within a 30-mile radius near the mine) than in the rest of Vermont.
The irony behind the court’s ruling is that, even though Manosh can be sued, it’s unlikely his financial situation is such that any money can be recovered for remediation. Manosh, who owns a number of small businesses in Vermont (and has closed a number of others) is simply not a large-enough financial target to make the aim worthwhile. This leaves the state of Vermont and the EPA holding the bag on all future cleanup.
Sources: University of Vermont, Vermont state legislature website, Insurance Journal, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources