On a sunny afternoon last month, French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of RiverLink took a detour during a canoe trip down the Swannanoa River. With this reporter and a photographer in tow, Carson stopped the boat where Sweeten Creek flows into the Swannanoa, near Biltmore Village. Pulling on waders, we slogged down Sweeten Creek to the Asheville Oil Co. facility where, over time, an unknown quantity of dyed home-heating oil has leached into the soil and water.
As we stood knee-deep in the creek, two things were immediately apparent: the strong, distinctive odor of oil and a rainbowlike sheen on the surface.
This wasn’t exactly news. Asheville Oil discovered a spill—and promptly reported it to the North Carolina Division of Water Quality—back in January 2007, when the company began replacing some underground diesel-fuel lines. Since then, Asheville Oil has been cooperating with the state in efforts to address the contamination.
Several weeks ago, however, a neighboring business also reported a spill. Rankin-Patterson Oil Co. phoned the state on March 5 to say that oil had accidentally been released when it was being pumped into their storage facility. Petroleum Transport Co., which was delivering the oil, received a notice of violation several weeks later.
During the March 3 canoe trip, Carson snapped photos showing where the oil had pooled, and as he stomped the mud several times, more petroleum bubbled up from the creek bottom. “See how it’s coming out of the sediment?” he asked. Since learning about the contamination, Carson had made a habit of dropping by the site, parking his car nearby and peering over the bridge. During a stream cleanup organized by RiverLink, he says, he noticed that some booms placed in the water to help soak up the spill were now brown and soggy with petroleum, having long since outlived their usefulness. That’s when Carson contacted Asheville Oil owner Karl Koon, who serves as vice president in charge of compliance.
“When we met the first time, we had this picture of a dozen old booms [that was taken] when we’d done a river cleanup,” Carson recalls. “And I said, ‘I understand that you guys are working to clean this up, but I’m a little concerned at maybe the quality of work. Because if you can’t even take care of the booms properly, then how are you going to clean up a big plume of oil in the river?’”
As Carson tells it, Koon maintained that the company regularly replaces its absorbent booms, suggesting that the ones Carson was talking about might have washed in from somewhere else during the 2004 flood.
Yet Carson, who has a Master of Science degree and has done extensive work on social and ecological impacts on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, remains skeptical. “I found a couple [later on] that looked to be the same story,” he says, adding that one was chained to a nearby tree. “To me, there’s just no chance that it’s from 2004.”
Koon, meanwhile, maintains that the oil that Carson observed in the creek may not be entirely his company’s responsibility. “He’s assuming product that he has found has come from us,” Koon told Xpress. “And I don’t know that I agree with that assumption, knowing what I know of other sources … not related to our operation.” Those sources, he says, include storm-water runoff and nearby construction activity.
In any case, Carson’s concern goes beyond the booms, which literally address only the surface of a much deeper contamination problem. He’s frustrated by the seemingly slow pace of the whole cleanup effort.
“I think it’s a classic case of bad housekeeping over a couple of decades,” he says. “And bad land use. I mean, they put an oil-distribution place within about 10 feet of the river. And so, over the course of the years, they’ve had spills and leaks, and it accumulated into a pretty heavy plume of oil in the ground. And that oil is leaking out now—right into Sweeten Creek. … It’s unfortunate, because they know about it and they’ve been willing to address it, but it’s a hard, complicated issue to get oil out of the ground water.”
No easy answers
That sentiment is one of the few points that Carson, Koon and Regional Supervisor Jan Andersen of the Division of Water Quality all seem to agree on. “It’s not something you can just instantaneously go out there and clean up,” she noted during a recent phone conversation. “I know that Hartwell even thinks you should just be able to tear down the building to clean it up. Well, you know, those are not real-world issues. You have to do what is technically, logically and economically feasible. … Once you get contamination in the ground water, it’s very difficult to clean it up. They’re working at it.”
On Jan. 17, 2007, shortly after Asheville Oil called to report the release, the state issued a notice of violation, documents show. Six soil samples taken around the same time all exceeded the federal limits for hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds. But according to a site assessment prepared by the Canton, N.C.-based Mountain Environmental Group, a consultant hired by Asheville Oil, drinking water shouldn’t be affected. “Municipal water is supplied to the area within a 1,500-foot radius from the site,” it reads. “No water-supply wells, public water supplies [or] wellhead-protection areas are located within 1,500 feet of the source area.”
Since becoming aware of the problem, the company has installed 15 monitoring wells and performed frequent “free-product recoveries”—pumping out a mixture of oil and contaminated sediment. They’ve also submitted a corrective-action plan for the next phase of the cleanup. To date, an estimated 4,182 gallons have been removed, according to the site assessment.
But there’s more where that came from—and, as Andersen notes, some of it may not be from Asheville Oil.
“We have another possible source,” she reports, referring to Rankin-Patterson Oil Co. “We’ve had a ground-water incident there before, but this is brand new—we’re investigating it.” At press time, details concerning the release were not available.
Oil contamination, says Andersen, is “like the gift that just keeps on giving—you can stomp around in it and there’s more. You’ve got the free product floating on the water table. And the water table moves up and down, so during the course of time, the product will get incorporated into the soil. It’s a fluctuating issue, and that soil is heavily contaminated.” As a result, she continues, “I can’t foresee how long before it’s cleaned up. I really can’t say.”
But Asheville Oil, she emphasizes, has done everything the state has required. “They’ve been spending money. They’ve hired the consultant, they’ve put in the monitoring wells and they’re doing the comprehensive site assessment and corrective-action plan,” notes Anderson, adding, “None of this is inexpensive.” And because of that compliance record, she says, the company has not been fined.
An influential figure
Koon, meanwhile, finds himself in an interesting position. Because besides being responsible for Asheville Oil’s compliance with environmental laws, he’s also a member—as is Carson—of Asheville’s Watershed Policy Committee, an ad hoc advisory group that’s slated to deliver its recommendations for revising the storm-water ordinance to City Council sometime this summer. In addition, Koon holds two other positions with significant potential to impact the local environment: He serves on the board of the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency and on the Buncombe County Planning Board.
And though Koon’s term on the Planning Board expired more tha