For years, people living near the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site have asked to be placed on city water. Extremely high levels of trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen, have repeatedly been found in some Mills Gap residents’ wells.
On Sept. 25, Asheville City Council unanimously approved extending water lines to all 129 households within a mile of the site. Council also agreed to waive $152,670 in fees for setting up the water lines and the accounts. The deal is contingent on Buncombe County’s accepting a $3 million interest-free loan from the state to pay for the new lines.
Xpress broke the news of the CTS contamination in 2007. The following year, the county agreed to pay for providing city water to individual homes whose wells showed high levels of TCE. But it balked at further line extensions, citing jurisdictional issues. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency officially declared the former electroplating plant a Superfund site.
Residents, meanwhile, have pushed for a connection to city water, citing the unknown extent of the contamination and the danger of it spreading. They’ve also harshly condemned what they see as negligence by local, state and federal authorities, with some even alleging a cover-up. It’s been more than two decades since a resident first called attention to the problem.
“As more information has come out, the request has grown,” Water Resources Director Steve Shoaf told Council. “The county has agreed to be responsible for the design and construction of the water lines, and the city will take them over after construction.”
Council members said the step represents real progress on a long-running issue.
“I'm really excited that we're offering 129 new customers an opportunity to tap onto our system, so they can have safe drinking water,” said Mayor Terry Bellamy. “This is something in the works for many years, and I'm proud the county's taken on the leadership to make it happen.”
“This is something the city has extended its hand on a number of times, and it's wonderful that we've come to a place where we can be helpful,” added Council member Gordon Smith. “These folks have needed it, and I'm glad we can be part of the solution.”
Local schoolteacher and activist Tate MacQueen, who's stood up in local government meetings many times to call for swifter action, hailed the move.
“It has been a long time coming; we know that the struggle has required the due diligence of our community first,” he said, adding, “We can turn on our taps without anxiety about what we're doing to ourselves or our children.”
But many issues remain, noted MacQueen, including air quality at the site and in neighboring homes, and the continuing lack of a comprehensive cleanup.
The Council vote was 6-0; Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer was absent.
Council members also:
• voted 5-1 to initiate rezoning for several steep parcels in Kenilworth owned by developer Frank Howington, from institutional to single-family residential. Residents have cited concerns about the density institutional zoning allows. Howington’s 2010 attempt to build the Caledonia Apartments on adjacent property has drawn the city and the neighborhood into a multifaceted legal dispute.
Staff will investigate the current zoning to determine whether a change is warranted. Council member Jan Davis cast the lone dissenting vote, fearing the city was setting a bad precedent by pursuing a rezoning without involving the property owner.
• unanimously approved a seven-year agreement with Pope Golf to operate the municipal golf course. The city has lost money on the course in recent years; the company will pay an annual fee of about $72,000.
• heard an update on the city's 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, now in its eighth year. According to program data, the number of chronic homeless in Asheville jumped from 131 in 2006 to 182 in 2010 before declining sharply to 80 this year. The drop is attributed to ongoing efforts to get more homeless people into permanent housing.
Housing costs remain a huge issue, however, program spokesperson Heather Spencer explained. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Asheville is $717 without utilities, while the “fair market rate” the program will pay is set at $617 with utilities. That gap, she said, makes it hard to find additional housing for the remaining homeless folks.