LOWELL — State and federal authorities have jointly decided to work with the towns of Eden and Lowell to spend an $850,000 settlement to upgrade water ways and fish habitat around a closed asbestos mine on Belvidere Mountain in the towns of Eden and Lowell.
The money is from a settlement negotiated over the former employee-owned Vermont Asbestos Group site. The mine once produced chrysotile white asbestos, the largest producer in the U.S. at one time.
The mine complex is about 1,550 acres on the mountain in both towns, comprised of 11 mine and mill buildings and structures and several tailings and waste rock piles that contain asbestos.
The two largest, the Eden pile and the Lowell pile, are estimated at 30 million tons.
The money will not be spent to clean up the mine complex itself and downstream damage. Voters in Eden and Lowell in 2012 rejected asking the federal government to make the mine a Superfund site for cleanup.
The settlement is intended for natural restoration outside the mine complex “to compensate the public for injuries to natural resources caused by the release of hazardous substances into the environment …” according to the plan.
The public and the towns had a chance to react to the draft of the plan last fall.
The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will use the settlement funds to “restore, replace or rehabilitate or acquire equivalent natural resources or services to those that were injured,” according to the plan.
The chosen plan includes multiple restoration projects in each town.
In Lowell, the funds will replace culverts and upgrade drainage on Irish Hill Road, Kempton Hill Road and other locations.
In Eden, the focus is on culverts and erosion prevention projects plus a Lake Eden best management practices program.
The culverts and erosion prevention projects are intended to improve fish passage, flood resilience, sediment management and water quality.
The culverts targeted are in streams that are not currently affected by tailings runoff to help improve functioning natural resources, according to the plan.
The settlement is a tiny amount compared to what would be a multi-million-dollar project to clean up the mine itself and the downstream damage.
Erosion from the mine’s waste rock and tailings piles “has substantially impaired downstream wetlands and streams” because of sediment that has filled wetlands, according to the plan, causing a violation of the Vermont Water Quality Standards.
The sediment contains “substantial amounts of hazardous materials, including asbestos, chromium and nickel,” according to a report issued in 2008 and cited in the plan.
That report led to the settlement.
Asbestos was once used in vehicle brake linings, shingles, siding, cement, pipe coverings and fireproof suits and doors.
Many people in Lowell and surrounding communities worked at the mine and eventually owned it through Vermont Asbestos Group until the mine closed in 1993.
In 2012, voters in Lowell and Eden resoundingly rejected the notion of asking the federal government to put the asbestos mine site on the Superfund list for clean up.
In Lowell, the official vote by paper ballot was 38 in favor to 103 opposed.
The Eden vote was even more emphatic, with 3 in favor to 106 opposed.
State environmental officials with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources had asked voters to consider listing the site on the Superfund list in hopes that eventually the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would initiate a cleanup.
Cost estimates for the clean-up ranged from tens of millions to more than $100 million, with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the tab, and the state 10 percent. Superfund designation meant that the site could have been considered for cleanup.
Then-Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, like others before him, said he would not seek the Superfund listing for the site without support from both communities.
Complaints about runoff in the early 2000s did prompt the state to restrict access to the mine, which had been used by ATV riders, and to prevent reuse of the tailings, and continue monitoring the watershed of the Lamoille and Missisquoi rivers outside the mine complex.