Rejecting Superfund Status Puts End To Asbestos Clean Up

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(Host) The federal and state government can’t afford to clean up an abandoned asbestos mine in northern Vermont now that voters have rejected a Superfund designation for the site.

That’s the word from officials with the state Agency of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Environmental protection Agency.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The votes in the towns of Eden and Lowell were about as lopsided as you can get. In Eden, just three voters supported the idea of Superfund clean up for the old asbestos mine.  In Lowell the idea was defeated by about a 3 to 1 margin.

(Warner) "Most of the people were scared. And rightfully so. They can’t expect to come here and ask us to support something with so many unknowns."

(Dillon) Alden Warner is town moderator in Lowell. He says the questions from residents included the size of the site that the Superfund money would target. Superfund is a program the federal government uses to clean up major hazardous waste sites.

Asbestos rock and asbestos tailings were common construction materials in northern Vermont, he says. So residents worried that their own property could be included as part of the cleanup project.

(Warner) "They were concerned about the fact that once the EPA got in here, where do they stop? Basically, there is asbestos tailings all over this northern part of the state. Everybody’s driveways got asbestos in them. Goodness sakes, I can remember I used to help my father put in springs and we used to line the spring tiles with mine rock."

(Dillon) The piles left over from the old mine are huge – some 30 million tons of mine waste rise like manmade foothills below Belvedere Mountain.

Clean up could cost up to $250 million. The state doesn’t have that kind of money. And the feds don’t have it either without access to the Superfund program. Bill Murphy is a spokesman for the EPA.

(Murphy) "If people up there change their mind, we can certainly look at it again as a Superfund site. But until we hear something different from the state, we’re assuming we won’t be doing anything up there."

(Dillon) Governor Peter Shumlin says voters made the right call in rejecting the Superfund designation. He says the state will continue to monitor the site, but that it’s not a threat to public health.

(Shumlin) "I think we should let sleeping dogs lie on that one and I think that by continuing our mitigation efforts all will be well in Lowell and Eden."

(Dillon) John Schmeltzer is with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He says the main challenge is to keep the material from eroding into nearby streams and wetlands.

But he says the state’s resources are limited.

(Schmeltzer) "We’ll begin the process of kind of developing a strategy, including possible funding sources to address the long-term erosion issues at the site. But that’s going to be challenging because now we have fewer resources."

(Dillon) The EPA says asbestos fibers can cause cancer if inhaled. But residents argue the danger from the old mine has been overstated. They point out the state was forced to retract a 2008 Health Department study that warned of possible health impacts. Schmeltzer agreed that the state lost credibility after the Health Department research was found to be flawed.

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

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