Two kinds of asbestos minerals that are potential causes of cancer have been found in samples of vermiculite from the Green Springs area of Louisa County in Virginia, according to scientists at one of the leading research centers in the field.
Two companies, W. R. Grace and Co., and Virginia Vermiculite, are planning to mine the ore in Green Springs, but have been faced with vigorous opposition from local residents who wish to preserve the pastrol beauty of the area.
The asbestos testing was undertaken by the publicly funded Mt. Sinai School of Medicine environmental research department after opponents of the mining filed a lawsuit last fall in an attempt to overturn a zoning decision by the county Board of Supervisors, which allowed the mining companies to go ahead.
Although that suit was lost before the results of the asbestos tests were known, members of the anti-mining group Historic Green Springs Inc., think the results will aid them in their appeal, which is to be heard in Virginia's Court of Appeal next week.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in a letter sent Friday to the head of Virginia's air pollution control board, said the two minerals, actinolite and chrysotile, are "hazardous" but noted that there is too little data on the possibility of either of the two minerals causing cancer or any other disease to say for sure that mining should not be done.
Gordon Rapier, the official who wrote the letter, said he recommended that "the best controls available" be placed on air emissions from the mining operations, and urged the state board to consider the effect of both firms operating in the same area. Without positive data that either asbestos mineral causes disease, EPA has no legal basis to halt mining, Rapier said.
Dr.Arthur N. Rohl, one of the doctors who worked on the vermiculite samples, said that chrysotile is known to cause a fatal cancerous tumor that has been found in the stomachs or chest cavities of family members of asbestos workers. This fact was not included in the report to the EPA, he said, because scientists do not know how much chrysotile it takes to cause cancer.
In other words, while chrysotile was found in the samples, there is no way of knowing how much would be breathed in by workers, or by purchasers of the products in which vermiculite is used, should the mining commence, he said.
"It isn't dangerous if it isn't breathed," Rohl said.
For this reason both Rapier and the Mt. Sinai team are recommending further tests, particularly studies on animals.
Virginia Vermiculite has asked the Farmer's Home Administration to guarantee a $1 million loan to finance its mine. Under federal regulation, the FHA must produce an acceptable environment impact study if the loan is to be approved. Rapier said the statement that has been given to the EPA by the local FHA administrator, which said simply that the vermiculite mining would have no "significant environment impact," was not acceptable because it did not fulfill EPA standards concerning reports.
The EPA has established unsafe levels for six air pollutants, but not for asbestos.
The state air pollution control board is scheduled to decide whether to give permits for the mining next week.
The Louisa County Board of Supervisors rezoned nearly 1,500 acres of Green Springs land to permit the two companies to strip mine vermiculite. The area was designed a historic area by the annoyance of some local residents.