by Sam Hyson, guest writer
In South Asheville, a dilapidated building sits in a fenced-in field overgrown with weeds, its windows smashed and its walls covered in graffiti. Behind it, a cluster of upscale townhouses towers above on steep slopes. Downhill – and downstream – lies the majority of the rural Mills Gap neighborhood.
Residents claim substantial evidence that millions of pounds of toxic chemicals were illegally dumped at the site, and even intentionally funneled onto nearby residential properties. They accuse the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of covering up and mishandling the case.
“I used to see [the EPA] as a bastion of environmentalism,” said Gabe Dunsmith, a 17-year old high school senior at nearby Christ School, “But after getting involved and having to fight the EPA, I don’t.”
Dunsmith is a survivor of thyroid cancer, which he contracted when he was 11 years old – roughly a one-in-a-million chance for someone that age. He is nearly certain his illness resulted from physical contact with contaminated water while playing in area creeks.
The 57-acre site was an industrial facility called CTS of Asheville, Inc., used for manufacturing electronic parts and electroplating from 1952 to 1986. In 1999, all but 9 acres were sold to developers, and the gated community of Southside Village was built.
According to residents, the EPA has known about the contamination since 1987. However, the EPA did not propose the site for the National Priorities List of hazardous sites, a virtual prerequisite for cleanup under the federal “Superfund” program, until last month, March of 2011.
“We’re tired of the meetings. We’re tired of being lied to. We’re tired of the misinformation,” said Mills Gap resident Aaron Penland at a community meeting with the EPA on April 14. Penland, whose family unknowingly drank contaminated water, has lost 10 family members to cancer in the past 10 years.
The primary contaminant at the site is trichloroethylene (TCE), a probable carcinogen, which breaks down into vinyl chloride, a confirmed carcinogen. TCE is used to dissolve the oils off of electronic components before assembling them.
TCE has been found near the facility in the soil, groundwater, surface water, sediment, air, and even in the bark of trees. According to residents, TCE is leaching into the groundwater daily and has already migrated two miles from the site.
Soil samples taken in 2001 showed enormous levels of TCE in soil beneath the site, reaching 830,000 parts per billion (ppb). In 2007, TCE was found in nearby springs at 293,000 ppb. The federal legal limit for TCE in water is 5 ppb, and the state limit is 3 ppb.
Other contaminants include heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and the carcinogens benzene and hexavalent chromium (the chemical made famous in the movieErin Brockovich).
When the facility was operational, wastes were dumped directly into an adjacent creek. High levels of TCE have been found in at least three creeks, including creeks that flow onto the property of two local schools and next to Gabe Dunsmith’s home.
“Lots of the people who live closest to the site and who are hit the hardest are very poor,” Dunsmith said. “Most of them don’t have means to leave. They can’t move, they can’t sell their homes, because their property values have gone down because of this.”
“We hear about every two weeks of someone else who’s got cancer or who’s died,” said Tate MacQueen, spokesperson for CTS Citizens’ Monitoring Council, an independent community organization.
According to MacQueen, there have been approximately 80 cases of cancer within a 2-mile radius, and 59 within a 1-mile radius, including 49 cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
When asked why the site has not been cleaned up, French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said, “I think it’s a combination of negligence and overlooking it.”
However, MacQueen has a much more sinister explanation. “[It’s] because there’s a thirty million dollar subdivision that was illegally built on a Superfund site… If [the EPA] had to clean it up, they’d have to explain why those 75 town homes were built. That means they’ll lose their jobs. That means they’ll discredit and shame their agency. They opted to cover that up.”
MacQueen, a U.S. history teacher at Owen Middle School, lives less than 5000 feet from the site. He is writing a comprehensive report on the issue, which he estimates could be up to 1000 pages long.
Dunsmith has also researched the CTS issue extensively, compiling an 11-page historical timeline as part of an internship with the Mountain Xpress, and writing about it in his school newspaper.
Dunsmith explained that “CTS” once stood for Chicago Telephone Supply, but that the company dropped the name when it stopped making telephone components, while retaining the acronym. The Indiana-based company opened up the Asheville facility to take advantage of North Carolina’s low wages and “right-to-work” laws – part of a pattern of northern companies moving their facilities south, Dunsmith said, citing a 1965 article in The Machinist, a labor newspaper.
When asked what ultimately needs to be done to clean up the site, the EPA’s Remedial Project Manager Samantha Urquhart-Foster said, “We don’t know that yet. We’ve just begun the investigative phase.”
However, to Dunsmith, the solution was clear. “The soil should be trucked out, there should be a remediation of groundwater, the people who aren’t on city water should be connected, and CTS should foot the bill.”
The EPA has made one notable attempt at cleanup. A soil vapor extraction system was installed at the site in 2006. According to Urquhart-Foster, 6500 pounds of contaminant have been removed. According to residents, however, the system does not work in the site’s dense clay soils. The system has not been operational since it was damaged by vandalism in May, 2010.
At the April 14 community meeting, Urquhart-Foster said that the EPA has not yet determined whether to do excavation or additional soil vapor extraction.
Dunsmith protested. “It’s basic environmental science that [soil vapor extraction] doesn’t work in clay soil,” he said. “Why are you reconsidering it?” Urquhart-Foster declined to answer.
“We’re tired of inaction. Do something please!” resident Eric Penland said at the meeting. Residents sent out a chorus of calls for immediate action.
“We have to do the Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study first,” Urquhart-Foster said.
Barry Durand, a member of the CTS Citizens Monitoring Council and a chemist by training, said in an interview that the EPA needs to “cut through the red tape,” and begin an immediate, full-scale cleanup.
“It’s imperative to clean up the source [of TCE],” said Durand. “Once it gets in the groundwater, it will stay there for hundreds of years… It’s a long-term disaster.”
Durand, who lives in Weaverville, got involved as a result of his close friendship with the Rice family, who live adjacent to the site and unknowingly drank contaminated water for years.
An EPA contractor trespassed onto the Rice property in 1990 and found high levels of TCE in a sediment sample, but never informed the Rices, MacQueen explained. After the family discovered their well water contaminated 9 years later, they had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the results of the test. According to MacQueen, pipes have been discovered funneling waste directly onto the Rices’ property.
At the community meeting, MacQueen and Durand called on the EPA to invoke the National Contingency Plan (NCP), which allows them to take immediate action in the event of an oil spill or a major discharge of hazardous waste.
“We have an ongoing spill,” Durand told the EPA representatives, his voice shaking. “You have the authority in the National Contingency Plan to do what you did in the Gulf Oil Spill.”
MacQueen asked Urquhart-Foster if she would advocate immediate cleanup under the NCP. “Yes I will,” she replied, to surprised applause.
After two decades of complaints, the residents’ campaign seems finally to be gaining headway. Members of 16 households are suing CTS Corporation for “perpetual nuisance,” a legal angle that enables them to overcome the statute of limitations.
In March, U.S. Senators Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Richard Burr (R-NC) and U.S. Representative Heath Shuler (D-NC) wrote a joint letter to the EPA requesting the agency’s immediate action. In April, the NC House passed a resolution to investigate the handling of the site by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Asheville filmmakers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood, who directed On Coal River, an influential documentary about mountaintop removal mining, are currently working on a film to bring the CTS issue to a wider audience.
“It probably should be a national story at some point,” said Durand. “It’s the EPA recreating Love Canal,” he said, referring to the case of a neighborhood built on a contaminated site in Niagara Falls, NY, that prompted the passage of the original Superfund legislation.
According to MacQueen, the citizens’ goal is not merely to clean up a site, but to reform an agency.
“This is bigger than us,” said MacQueen, reflecting on the years of struggle. “It’s infinitely bigger than our rural community. We’re going to flip this into something very positive, and that’s the fuel that’s driving us all.”