by Tim Burkhardt, staff writer
Swannanoa residents and community members gathered in Kittridge theatre Dec. 3 to meet with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and the project managers for the Haliburton-owned superfund site located near the college on Old Bee Tree Road. The abandoned site covers over 1,000 acres of land and was used throughout the latter part of the 20th Century as a site for the design and testing of military weaponry. This included the manufacture of chemical weapons such as BZ Gas, which according to Jon Bornholm, the site manager, “is a hallucinogen 100 times as potent as LSD.” This compound was then placed into missile shells. Bornholm also stated that part of the site was used as firing range to test weaponry.
The meeting itself was tense and chaotic. Members of the community were clearly concerned about the state of the site, but the EPA representatives did not seem to have answers that satisfied the questions that were raised. Many members of the audience had questions about the locations of disposal sites on the property, as well as water conditions in Bee Tree Creek.
“We are not seeing contaminants in the surface water,” said Bornholm. “We are using surface water standards.”
When asked what the surface water standards were, Bornholm responded, “I don’t know what those are.” When he was asked what the holding-water ponds on the property are for, Bornholm also admitted he did not know and that “there are different standards for the EPA and for Superfund.”
Bornholm went on to say that the testing was done annually. When asked if that was enough, Bornholm responded by saying that there was not enough money to finance extensive testing. This sent groans and complaints through the audience as whispers of “Halliburton,” and “Cover-up,” fluttered throughout the crowd.
The vibrations were intense throughout the auditorium. As questions got more heated, EPA representative Tonya Whitsett took over and demanded the respect of the crowd before the meeting would continue. This did not go over well with many people present. A man in the auditorium stood up and responded:
“What you see in this room is the culmination of suspicion and distrust over the last fifty years. This is an area where the population is growing; it has doubled in population in the last 15 years, and the EPA needs to be more forthcoming [to these new citizens.]”
There was not a lot of new information given to the public at this meeting. Neither Bornholm nor Whitsett could answer community members’ questions such as: “is there more that can be done?” “When can we expect something to be done about the new sources of contaminants that have been discovered since the last test in 1988?” “Will there be another public health screening,” and “after spending $400,000 on treating the site, is progress being made?” The response to all of these questions was “I don’t know.”
When pressured about the lack of answers, Whitsett responded, “I was hoping you Warren Wilson students would research that.” She went on to say she had thought that students would do their research and talk to locals and come to the meeting informed.
So there you have it, students. Straight from the EPA. It is up to the community to keep the pressure on and to seek out and demand answers. Anyone who lives close to the Chemtronics site has a right to ask and get a truthful response to the question: “What is in my backyard?”
The meeting resolved with a vote to begin a Community Action Group (CAG) in response to the contaminated site. EPA members will be on hand to assist in the formation and the delegation of duties. The community action group is in the process of getting organized and ready to be part of the decision making process by the spring. They want the involvement of locally elected officials, Warren Wilson students, and others who represent the community’s interests.