Eden residents furious with state over handling of asbestos warnings
01/13/09 5:58PM By John Dillon  Download MP3
(Host) Residents of a couple of small northern Vermont towns are furious with the state for raising health concerns about an abandoned asbestos mine.
The state has backed off some of its warnings but that hasn't done anything to calm people in Eden who say their property values have been damaged.
Their anger spilled over at a public meeting last night and VPR's John Dillon was there.
(Dillon) Officials were on the defensive from the start in Eden. They tried to explain why the state first flagged a cluster of lung cancer cases possibly associated with asbestos exposure, and then had to retract that conclusion.
Health Commissioner Doctor Wendy Davis apologized for the error. But that didn't satisfy Leslie White of Eden.
(Davis/White) Davis: "I cannot be more sorry that we made an error. We are subject to human fallibility and we did make an error despite our best effort at putting together good information."
White: "Maybe you could give that just as much press information, press release, the apology that you made a mistake as you did condemning us to live here! (applause) It got a little tiny squeak, a little tiny squeak that said, `Oh we made a mistake,' and then on we go. But it was all over that it was this terrible risk to live near the mine. It was not proportional!"
(Host) Commissioner Davis said the study still showed a statistical link between the incidence of asbestosis - an asbestos related disease - and people who lived within 10 miles of the mine. She said the state was obligated to sound the health warning.
(Davis) "We understand the degree to which it creates concern. ... So noone would have been happier if we had not found anything. We could have turned off our computers and gone home. But when we find that kind of information, we cannot ignore it."
(Dillon) But Lynn Noah, who owns land in Eden, challenged the report's findings. He said the study was based on extremely small numbers - three deaths from asbestosis among people who did not work at the mine.
(Noah) "I've studied statistics at MIT and I have to say the concept and the execution, and especially the presentation to the press, was so bad as to border on the unethical."
(Host) The state defended the study and said it was carefully reviewed by federal scientists.
But residents said they were concerned that the publicity over the possible health dangers has caused their property values to plummet.
Betty Jones owns 200 acres across from the mine site.
(Jones) This makes my land worthless. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to tell everybody you made a mistake?
(Host) The mine site straddles the towns of Eden and Lowell. It was closed in 1993. Officials are concerned that waste rock containing potentially harmful asbestos fibers WAS used for road-building and for construction throughout the area.
Officials asked the public for information about where the asbestos waste was used for construction and road-building. Warren Earle from Eden said the state better look everywhere.
(Earle) "The tailings that have been removed from the site? I have talked with enough folks to know that you better start somewhere south of Montpelier, draw a line all the way across the state and don't stop until you get somewhere north of the Canadian border, ‘cause you're going to find asbestos tailings scattered all over northern Vermont."
(Dillon) Meanwhile, reaction to the flawed state health study is building in Montpelier. A caucus of Northeast Kingdom lawmakers has drafted a letter calling on the governor to take disciplinary action against Health Department officials.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.
Photo: Westfield resident John Ferrara criticizes the state health study at the public meeting