Joseph Villers, staff writer
Many students may have no idea what lies beyond Suicide Ridge, a high range of ancient igneous and metamorphic rock which runs along Warren Wilson College’s north-western border.
According to a report in the Warren Wilson archives seeking to understand the presence of coyote on Suicide Ridge, “The Suicide Ridge area has only one source of water over a very large range, making it theoretically less appealing as habitat. One possible explanation (…) is that it provides a corridor between Warren Wilson, with the river and den sites, and the Chemtronix [sic] site, which is appealing for being greatly isolated from humans, and is known to attract unusually high densities of bears.”
Since 1952, an industrial facility encompassing 1,027 acres has been active in Buncombe County, changing hands until the site was purchased by Chemtronics in 1978.
Ten acres of the facility were used for waste disposal, by means of “acid pits,” “burning grounds” and 55-gallon drums buried in trenches or left on the surface, according to the abstract of the 84-page Record Of Decision of Swannanoa’s redress to Chemtronics, mediated by the EPA, on April 5, 1988.
Disposal took place over an aquifer listed by the EPA as a future source of drinking water.
Officials got their first complaints in 1979, when a Swannanoa resident complained of “foul odors” on his property. The resident complained to local, state, and finally federal authorities, citing open acid pits at the facility, one of which temporarily blinded his dog. In 1980 the EPA was involved, and in 1982 published the Chemtronics site on their proposed Superfund National Priority List (NPL).
“North Carolina has the highest percentage of Superfund sites in the country. It costs too much to clean up so these areas are quarantined” said senior Hank Hambright of Forestry Crew.
Warren Wilson held an Environmental Studies seminar in Feb. 1984 using the Chemtronics site as its case study. The group of concerned faculty, residents and students held a seminar, with the president of Chemtronics, Robert King, in attendance.
From this meeting was formed the Buncombe County Hazardous Waste Advisory Board (BCHWAB), a bloc no longer existent. Residents at the time complained of contaminated groundwater, falling property values in the area, a lack of trust with the EPA and the late revelation that the chemical weapon 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ) was secretly produced at the facility.
The local media’s publicizing of the hallucinogenic effects of BZ led to a “Right To Know” campaign gaining traction in Buncombe County. The campaign derided reports that Chemtronics hired “HANDISKILLS” workers to engineer “chemical warfare decontamination kits.”
The crew was “comprised of mentally and physically handicapped persons,” in all probability unaware of the chemicals produced at the facility. At a public meeting held on Feb. 23, 1988, residents cited unusually high cancer rates, and a former employee of Chemtronics said that of his 24 colleagues, 16 had died.
“Does the EPA need 24 out of 25?” he asked.
The EPA spokesman responded “sickness exists in every healthy population,” and “the American Cancer Society estimates that one-third of the American population will contract and die of cancer.”
The site is now being operated by the defense contractor Haliburton. In a WCQS Public Radio broadcast in Dec. 2002, Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Julie Ball said that according to a talk with the EPA project manager, “clean-up could take another 30 years.” She described the process as capping contaminated areas, drawing and treating the groundwater, then releasing it into the sewer system.
“I believe we can’t draw wells, because the groundwater is contaminated,” Hambright said.
For those who would like to know more, the public record on Chemtronics operations in Swannanoa is held at the WWC library under reference #: R 628.420975688 U58f 2002.