by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
There is a plot of land on Old Bee Tree Road in Swannanoa where explosives, incapacitating agents, and chemical intermediates were manufactured from 1952 to the 1980s and, until now, Warren Wilson has had little to do with it. However, during an open meeting in Kittredge Theatre Dec. 3, students will finally have the opportunity to learn about the site and perhaps participate in the formation of a junior Community Advisory Group to discuss the clean up and the future of the site.
This 1,000-acre plot behind Warren Wilson College has an extensive, complex history.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been overseeing the site since the early 1980s under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, or Superfund. The EPA established this fund to address abandoned hazardous waste sites, which started cropping up more and more throughout the country during the 1970s.
The property was initially an industrial facility owned by Oerlikon Tool and Arms Corp beginning in 1952. The facility, which has been owned by several companies (now considered “potentially responsible parties” to the EPA), manufactured these chemicals and explosives for the Department of Defense.
Between 1952 and 1971, solid waste materials including rocket motors and explosive wastes from the site were disposed of by being incinerated in pits dug on-site, in the “Acid Pit Areas.” In 1980, the state of North Carolina ordered the Acid Pit Areas to be discontinued and the pits were filled. Other chemicals were placed in large 55-gallon drums and buried underground on-site, where they remain today. The disposal areas, six in total, are now surrounded by a 6-foot chain-linked fence. Currently, the site has two groundwater extraction/treatment systems to restore millions of gallons of water that have been contaminated.
According to site manager Jon Bornholm, during the facility’s operations, the surrounding community was unaware of what was manufactured on the site, and how the waste was disposed of, up until the 1982, when the EPA put the site on the National Priority List, which includes hazardous waste sites that warrant attention and inspection. There are approximately 1,800 NPL sites in the U.S. today.
“It was basically done in secret,” said Bornholm, who has been the site manager since 1984.
When a fire broke out at the site in 1986, officials at the facility refused to disclose the cause of the fire, leaving many concerned citizens confused and in the dark about the facility’s production.
“I can’t understand why they’re reluctant to tell us what they’ve got in there,” assistant Swannanoa fire chief Jim Adams told the Asheville Citizen-Times after the incident. “We like to have an idea of what we are up against. We don’t want to send a lot of personnel into a hazardous situation.”
Over 200 community members attended the first open meeting concerning the site.
“They were shocked as to what was being made there,” Bornholm said. “They were there to find out what the cleanup process was.”
However secretive the facility may have been, one thing was widely known: it was the largest and best employer in the area.
“Jobs there were highly sought after,” said professor Robert Hastings. In fact, Chemistry professor Joe Young was employed at the facility before he began his teaching position at Warren Wilson. “It was a whole different environment than we have now.”
Hastings works for Altamont Environmental, Inc. which is under the direction of the EPA and has been consulting the responsible parties at the Superfund site, leading the investigation, analysis and cleanup of the site.
“There’s so much activity going on right now,” Hastings said.
The way Superfund sites move through the cleanup phase is a long and extensive process, he said.
It is the disposal areas that the EPA continues to deal with today—all the waste that was buried prior to 1980. According to Bornholm, there are some parts of the site that will never be delisted from the National Priority List.
“Those [disposal] areas will always be contaminated in my lifetime and your lifetime,” Bornholm said.
The EPA has placed restrictions on the site, which is currently owned by Chemtronics, Inc., a subsidiary of Halliburton, one of the largest oilfield services companies. While Halliburton is in control of what they want to do with the site, Bornholm said, Superfund has placed restrictions on the property.
“It can’t be a child care center or things like that,” he said.
Today, approximately 100 buildings that used to exist on the site have been torn down. All that remains on the property, in what could be considered the backyard of Wilson, are two groundwater treatment facilities and a couple of chain-linked fences keeping people away from the extremely hazardous wastes. Some of the land on this site is perfectly unharmed, while other areas are marked forever by what lies underneath.
While there is no evidence that suggest that the property affects the health and safety of Warren Wilson students, it is nonetheless important to be informed about this Superfund site and its history.
“[Students] should be aware of everything that happens around them,” Hastings said. “We have an obligation as educated people to know what’s going on around us.”
One opportunity for public engagement, according to Hastings, is the release of next year’s Remedial Investigation Report. After this report is published in April 2013, the community will have the opportunity to review the findings and contribute their own opinions.
Another opportunity for community input in the near future will be the open meeting hosted by the EPA Dec. 3, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in Kittredge. EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Tonya Whitsett hopes to engage Warren Wilson students and increase their knowledge of and involvement with the Superfund site.
“The agency has ideas and the community has ideas,” Whitsett said. “But what we should be working towards together are the ideals that we arrive at through collaboration.”