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On Town Meeting Day, residents in Lowell and Eden will be asked whether they support making the abandoned asbestos mine on Belvidere Mountain a federal Superfund site. A “yes” vote could make available millions of government dollars to clean up the Vermont Asbestos Group property, a 1540-acre site that has become an eyesore and environmental hazard since the mine shut down in 1993.
But the designation also has the potential to create new uncertainties that may lead some residents of these Northeast Kingdom towns to opt for the devil they know over the devil they don’t. Among their worries: The Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t revealed any details about its cleanup plan for Belvidere. Nor has it said how much time, or money, the process might require. Some local residents are even worried that some of their driveways — paved with material from the mine — may be considered part of the pollution.
Complicating matters, a Middlesex developer is making noise about building a biomass energy plant on the old mine site. The Lamoille Economic Development Corporation says the site needs to be fully remediated before any redevelopment can take place — something only a Superfund designation, and the federal dollars to follow, could pay for.
Eden resident Leslie White worries that voters could be seduced into voting for Superfund status by the promise of a biomass development that never materializes. She warns, “If we invite the EPA and Superfund in, this could become a way bigger and more complicated thing than we need.”
Superfund listing has strong support from state agencies and some Vermont entrepreneurs who argue that the only way to clean up or repurpose the mine site is with the federal dollars the Superfund program guarantees. But it’s been a tough sell in Lowell and Eden.
White says the Superfund label connotes a public danger that could negatively affect property values and local businesses. It didn’t help that, four years ago, the Vermont Department of Health released a report that inaccurately concluded the region was at higher risk of lung cancer because of asbestos exposure.
Following publication of the health study, White says cabins at nearby Lake Eden — the “only kind of touristy thing in Eden” — received calls from prospective visitors who wanted to cancel their trips. Superfund listing, White says, is a “label that we don’t want.”
“Superfund is not a perfect tool, and I totally get that,” says John Schmeltzer, an environmental analyst with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. “The way things came down with the health study, I understand why the community was upset. The state as a whole had a credibility problem.”
That in turn has fostered widespread skepticism among residents in the area. Many of them doubt the site is dangerous, despite a preliminary EPA site analysis from 2007 and 2008 that confirmed its eligibility for Superfund designation.
State Rep. Mark Higley (R-Lowell) explains the prevailing attitude. “The people up in Lowell have lived with it for 100 years,” he says of the mine. “It’s kind of second nature to them.”
It doesn’t help that they’re faced with a classic catch-22: The EPA can’t clarify its plans for the mine until the community — and state — agree to put in a formal application to the program.
Nor is the biomass developer, Dexter Lefavour, making any promises without a guaranteed cleanup timeline.
But David Hallquist, the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative and the board president of the Lamoille Economic Development Corporation, which supports Superfund status, stresses that potential future development hinges on cleaning up the mine.
“The real question here is, ‘Do you want this site to be cleaned up?’” says Hallquist. “As it sits now, you can’t even go on site. Do you want to start the process?”
The Belvidere Mountain mine began operating in the early 1900s and at one time was the largest producer of chrysotile asbestos in the U.S. Miners extracted the asbestos ore from open pits and sent it to factories where it was made into brake pads, floor and ceiling tiles, and other products. The leftover tailings — huge mounds of the by-products of mining — grew up alongside the mine. Today, residents describe those piles as small mountains in their own right.
The mine closed in 1993 amid growing concern about asbestos’ links to lung cancer and asbestosis. Now it’s the tailings piles — 30 million tons in all — that most worry state and federal environmental regulators. Specifically, they don’t want asbestos eroding into downstream wetlands.
The mine isn’t going to go away, says Schmeltzer, and the tailings piles will continue to erode — especially during the increasingly severe weather events experts predict the state will experience in coming decades. He counts the region lucky that Tropical Storm Irene didn’t hit as hard at Belvidere Mountain as it did in other parts of the state.
“It’s a big site, and there’s no silver bullet or quick fix here,” Schmeltzer says. There are a few efforts in place already to deal with cleanup: berms and diversion channels to route away runoff, as well as some test plots where the state has tried to grow vegetative cover. The state actively manages the site as best it can, but without a massive cleanup effort — which would likely include cutting down and capping the tailings piles in some way — it is catch as catch can.
No one really knows how much it would cost to clean up Belvidere Mountain. The mine’s bankrupt owners have put the figure at around $60 million. In a 2010 report, the state DEC estimated the price tag at $130 million to $200 million.
Local residents guess the actual cost could be higher — and worry that federal funds won’t be there to cover the promised 90 percent, even if the site does earn Superfund status.
Established in 1980 to address abandoned hazardous waste sites, the Superfund program allows the EPA to clean up pollution and compel the responsible parties — when they still exist — to reimburse certain cleanup costs. When those parties can’t be found, the EPA taps a special trust fund to finance the cleanup. Currently, 13 sites in Vermont are listed on the Superfund registry.
Prior to 1995, funds came through a tax on petroleum and chemical products, but for almost two decades Superfund has had to compete with other federal programs for precious dollars. The spending plan sent to Congress by the White House this month calls for reducing the program’s funding by 6 percent — from $565 million to $532 million.
EPA spokesman Jim Murphy acknowledges the exact amount of annual funding can be hard to predict. In the case of the asbestos mine, he says the EPA would work incrementally as funding allows.
The state has said it won’t pursue Superfund listing without community support, which leaves the DEC waiting on the results of the March 6 vote. If the towns give their approval, the state will draft a letter to the EPA to set the process in motion.
“No matter how you slice it, the bottom line is … it is the only mechanism we have,” Schmeltzer says of the Superfund program.
Some residents are coming around to the idea. Lowell selectman Alden Warner isn’t 100 percent sure that Superfund is the right answer but says the mine will need to be dealt with eventually.
“If we don’t do something,” Warner says, “we’re going to just throw this problem into our grandchildren’s laps.”
Correction: A typo in the original version of this article originally stated that 30 tons of asbestos tailings at the site need cleaning up. In fact, the DEC estimates that number is 30 million.