Lawmakers review flawed asbestos study

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(Host) Lawmakers are concerned that a state study rang a false alarm about health risks from an abandoned asbestos mine in northern Vermont.

Today, a Senate committee heard that the study was flawed. But witnesses said widespread publicity about the alleged risks has already depressed property values in the area.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) House majority Leader Floyd Nease represents Eden, a Lamoille County town where the mine is located.

Nease says the Health Department bungled its study. The state first said there was a higher rate of lung cancer deaths among people living near the mine, but then had to retract that finding because of a data error.

But Nease said the damage has been done, because the flawed study has had a huge impact on property values.

(Nease) Just the reappraisal that happened last year – it cost $60 thousand dollars in the town of Eden, and it’s irrelevant now.

(Dillon) Leslie White of Eden told lawmakers that she did the research the Health Department should have done.

She tracked down the death certificates of two of the three people whom the department said died from asbestosis, a disease caused by asbestos exposure. The health study says those three deaths were enough to make a statistical association between a higher rate of the disease and living near the mine.

But White said one of the people had worked in shipbuilding for years – an occupation linked to heavy asbestos exposure. The second case was a farmer who worked briefly at the mine. White said his family told her he died from a lung disease called farmers’ lung – caused by exposure to hay dust and mold. She said she couldn’t find the death certificate for the third person.

(White) "I feel very violated that the information was out there and that I had to go get it. And these are the people that are trying to protect us, it just doesn’t seem right. … I think there has to be a full retraction of this health finding."

(Dillon) Health Commissioner Doctor Wendy Davis did not back down from the key finding of the health study. She said it would be significant even if only two people died from asbestosis in the area.

(Davis) We believe that the asbestosis data is statistically significant. The only conclusion that we can draw from the study is that there is an association between the hospital discharge data, and the asbestosis deaths and living in one of the thirteen towns in the study.

(Dillon) The Senate Economic Development Committee is considering a resolution that casts doubt on the Health Department study.

But Warren Earl from Eden said the resolution wouldn’t do much good.

(Earl) I ask you folks what this resolution will do for the people in Eden and Lowell. I personally don’t feel it will benefit us anymore than if I urinated in the Hutchins Brook and expected to kill lamprey eels in Lake Champlain.

(Dillon) But lawmakers said there wasn’t much more they could do. If the Legislature approves the resolution, it will be sent to the state, the towns and the federal government.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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