Lowell residents concerned about asbestos exposure
11/13/08 5:50PM By John Dillon
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(Host) In the Orleans County town of Lowell, waste from an asbestos mine was routinely used to build roads and fill land.
State health officials have found a cluster of cancer cases that could be linked to asbestos exposure.
Now, residents say they're concerned about the potential risk, but they're also worried about how the news will affect their property values.
VPR's John Dillon has this report.
(Dillon) Alvin Warner is 90 years old and has lived all his life in the shadow of the giant asbestos mine up on the side of Belvidere Mountain.
(Warner) "This road seems like home to me ‘cause I was born up this way.. 1927 this bridge went out from the flood they had here."
(Dillon) As Warner's Jeep bumps along toward the mine, he talks about the 18 years he worked for the Vermont Asbestos Group. He also points out that the dirt road we're riding on was made from the waste material left over from asbestos mining - the "tailings."
(Warner) "All this here was all tailing from the mines. Most of the town roads were... When they went to black top, it was tailings they put on underneath here."
(Dillon) Environmental officials say the tailings contain asbestos, and asbestos can cause cancer.
In fact, a health department study shows elevated rates of lung cancer and asbestos-related lung disease among people who lived within 10 miles of the mine.
So the state is asking the public for more information about where the asbestos waste was used. Alden Warner is Alvin Warner's son and a member of the Lowell selectboard. He has a ready answer to the state's question.
(Alden Warner) "We told them it was used everywhere... People used them to backfill the springs, I mean a good many of the roads here in town were built from that stuf . So I mean it's everywhere."
(Dillon) The younger Warner has come to visit his parents this afternoon. As he sits at the kitchen table, he explains that the asbestos tailings were not just spread around Lowell.
The mine company allowed surrounding towns to pick up the material free of charge. Workers were allowed to bag the stuff and take it home
(Alden Warner) "The town used to use it, instead of using winter sand, that's what they used to put on the roads in the wintertime. So any time anybody needed any sort of fill or whatever, hey it was free at the mines."
(Dillon) The EPA and the state are just beginning to assess the possible risk from the closed mine and the asbestos tailings. John Schmeltzer is with the Department of Environmental Conservation.
(Schmeltzer) "We know that it's been everywhere but we want to get a better sense of where, and based on that information prioritize where there could potentially be the highest threat of exposure."
(Dillon) The Health Department's study was careful to note that researchers did not determine the cause of the disease.
Still, residents of Lowell are concerned that the news that people have gotten sick will alarm the public - and hurt property values. Alden Warner:
(Alden Warner) "They went out and put this press release out and made it sound so horrendous that people aren't going to buy around this area, property values are going to go down. It just seems too bad that they didn't want until they got some hard facts.
(bells ring as door opens to general store)
(Dillon) At the Lowell General Store, Jennifer Wielman has stopped in to pick up two pizzas for dinner. She's heard something about asbestos in town, but wants to know more.
(Wielman) "I know about the asbestos mines over there. And I know that asbestos is definitely not good for us. Before I can say too much I would have to investigate it further."
(Dillon) Selectboard member Richard Pion has stopped in to buy newspapers. He attended a recent meeting with state officials, a session that left more questions than answers.
(Pion) "I would like to know what's going on. I live in town, got kids in town, grandchildren. If it's a health risk, we'd like to know really..."
(Dillon) Store owner Gary Kennison has just finished his second job - delivering mail to residents around town.
(Kennison) "Health risk, of course I'm concerned about that there. But my main concern is the property values, what it will do to this area, as far as property values. Like I'm trying to sell my business. Is anybody going to want to look at it? What's it going to do to my taxes?"
(Dillon) As he drives up to the mine site, Alvin Warner says he's pretty healthy for age 90. That's proof, he says, that his 18 years working with asbestos didn't make him sick.
(Alvin Warner) "If I had any idea it was dangerous, health dangerous, I wouldn't be for it. But in my own mind I know it was nothing, because I worked there for so many years right in the dust."
(Dillon) Many studies have shown that asbestos dust can be deadly. And Alvin Warner remembers that no matter what color your car was when you came to work at the mines in the morning, it was white from the dust when the day was over.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Lowell.
Photo top: Alvin Warner in front of the mine in Lowell.
Photo middle: A "tailings" pile in Eden