Negotiations over Vermont Asbestos Group’s operations on Belvidere Mountain are settled: Howard Manosh’s company will have until 2023 to pay $50,000 toward cleaning up his company’s 1,550-acre toxic waste site.
But the closed mine’s fate is hardly sealed. The state is “open to suggestions” about what can be done there — from installing a solar array to letting in a developer who can reuse some of the 30 million tons of hazardous material currently sitting in piles, quarries and buildings across the 650-acre site.
A settlement between VAG and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was signed Oct. 16 by Judge William Sessions III in U.S. District Court. No public comments on the proposed consent decree were received in the preceding month.
Assistant Attorney General Thea Schwartz said the state will continue to pursue the case. The defendant agreed to work with the state and EPA to recover as much money as possible from insurance policies. Any funds obtained will compensate for the governments’ past and future efforts to contain the hazardous ore, mine tailings and waste rock.
“We don’t know what we’re going to be getting from the insurance companies,” said John Schmeltzer, of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s sites management section. The total long-term cost of remediation may range from $135 million to $208 million for 200 years of operation, maintenance and monitoring, according to state documents.
Vermont Asbestos Group was found to be financially unable to cover the remediation costs; the settlement obligates VAG to pay $50,000 over the next 10 years. During that time, VAG also will continue maintaining the temporary mitigation structures put in place by the EPA since 2007 — environmental features such as water bars, diversion trenches and berms to minimize runoff.
Manosh could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
Schmeltzer will continue as project manager. He said that while short-term erosion-control measures are maintained, the state is willing to consider alternative uses for the site.
A feasibility study for siting a solar array on the property was completed in April by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The scale of the mine is such that many large, non-vegetated flat open areas containing removed and graded cap rock within the 1,550-acre site could potentially be used for utility-scale solar development,” the report says.
But Schmeltzer cautions that such a prospect would be “uncharted territory,” given the highly toxic nature of the landscape. “It would be more feasible if at least a portion of the site is remediated,” he said.
Other potential uses are occasionally floated, Schmeltzer said, but no serious inquiries have surfaced.
At old mines in the western part of the country, he said, new technology is now being used to extract metals from previously unusable materials. Asbestos may be particularly valuable for its magnesium, he suggested.
“If there is a developer who comes in that has an idea, that’s something we would be open to,” Schmeltzer said. He emphasized that such alternative measures would have to contribute to remediation efforts in order to be viable.
In the meantime, VAG representatives routinely visit the site to ensure erosion-control measures are holding up to the weather, and Schmeltzer himself visits as-needed. He had hoped the mine would find a place in the federal government’s Superfund program to clean up “uncontrolled hazardous waste sites,” but local residents voted against the designation.
Other federal monies may be available for remediation. About 1,000 to 2,000 cubic yards of ore were removed last week with help from EPA, Schmeltzer said. He had feared one of the mine buildings would require demolition in order to access and remove the problematic material. Workers covered the remaining ore with about three feet of tailings and stone to keep it contained.
“There’s nothing really complicated about this,” Schmeltzer said. “It’s just big.”
There’s little to no chance that all the waste will ever be totally removed. The goal is to flatten the massive piles and cover them up, he said. Some, that aren’t too steep, were planted with a cover crop of legumes and clover about three years ago.
Schwartz said no other litigation regarding the site is pending at this time. An earlier settlement with the mine’s prior owner, G-I Holdings, continues to be enforced. Part of that agreement includes perimeter air monitoring and site security. G-I also will fund future efforts to scan company documents left in the operation’s offices.