Analysis paralysis? CTS, EPA sign new agreement; residents charge agency fraud

South Asheville’s Robinson Creek has been a play space for generations of kids in the once-rural Mills Gap Road community. But these days, residents warn their kids to stay away from the stream.

In recent decades, both Robinson and Dingle creeks — along with soil, air and ground water near the former CTS of Asheville plant — have registered high levels of toxic chemicals, including benzene, vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene (which has been linked to several kinds of cancer). The former electroplating plant closed its doors in 1986 and was demolished last December.

Worries about human health and environmental impacts continue to run deep in the neighborhood, with many residents reporting assorted cancers and other serious health issues.

In late February, Becky and Mack Robinson revealed that doctors suspect their daughter, Shannon, has thyroid cancer. Becky herself previously developed a rare immune disorder. Also last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arranged an emergency shipment of bottled water to yet another household in the area after the EPA’s quarterly testing found elevated levels of pentachlorophenol in their well.

Residents like the Robinson family, center, and Barry Duran, back, continue to question what the EPA is doing to clean up the CTS contamination. Photo by Susan Andrew

Meanwhile, despite more than two decades of official evidence, there’s been little progress in actually cleaning up the contamination. Last year, the EPA proposed returning the site to the National Priorities List (aka Superfund); and in January, the federal agency signed a new agreement with CTS requiring still more studies and a plan for the cleanup residents have awaited for years.

Under the agreement, CTS will fund detailed studies to ascertain the extent of the contamination, which the EPA says is necessary to determine an effective cleanup strategy. CTS will also pay for assessments of the potential human health and ecological impacts surrounding the site, and an evaluation of several possible remediation approaches, all of which would be performed by an EPA-approved contractor. The EPA will then choose a cleanup process, which the company will also pay for.

Millions already spent

The process has already cost taxpayers more than $6.5 million, according to a bill the EPA sent CTS last October. But the company disputed some costs, further delaying any cleanup, says Samantha Urquhart-Foster, the EPA’s remedial project manager.

“If we had continued to negotiate just on past cost, it would have taken a long time and we still wouldn’t have an agreement, so we agreed to postpone [those] negotiations,” she explains.The corporation will now be billed annually for the EPA’s costs going forward, says Urquhart-Foster, adding, “We will pursue [past] cost recovery later.”

According to Mills Gap resident Tate MacQueen, however, “The money they’ve spent to date could have cleaned this site up in eight months’ time.” He cites a 2004 analysis of cleanup alternatives produced by an EPA contractor.

MacQueen, a longtime activist on the case, believes state and federal agencies had sufficient evidence to trigger a cleanup as far back as 1990. But they took little action until 1999, when a state contractor found high levels of contamination in a spring supplying the Rice family’s drinking water; by then, developers had already broken ground on the adjacent Southside Village development. Instead of halting construction, charges MacQueen, the EPA went into cover-up mode, hiding evidence while allowing dangerous levels of contamination to spread.

Complaint charges EPA fraud

On Feb. 22, some community members filed a formal complaint against the EPA with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, alleging fraud and mishandling of the long-running case.

EPA staff, says the complaint, acted with willful neglect and, in some cases, malfeasance, creating several erroneous listings for CTS in the agency’s database of contaminated sites, and even, in the mid-’90s, removing the property from the Superfund inventory altogether. All this allowed continued human exposure to the contamination.

A 2010 report by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General blasted the agency’s handling of the case. Various elected officials have written to the EPA urging a swift cleanup, and in January, state Rep. Tim Moffitt chaired the first of four meetings on the matter. Moffitt says his committee has subpoenaed EPA officials to testify at its March meeting.

Fox guarding the henhouse?

Meanwhile, CTS has offered to provide free whole-house filters to all residents within a mile of the plant who are still using well water. The EPA says it will send out a notice concerning the company’s offer this month, along with a fact sheet about the filters.

But residents who were expecting to be hooked up to city water say the offer amounts to too little, too late.

Asked about the matter, Urquhart-Foster said, “These systems are effective at removing contaminants from water and have been used successfully at other EPA Superfund sites.”

Several Mills Gap households “either do not want to pay for municipal water or cannot afford to do so,” she wrote in an email to MacQueen obtained by Xpress. “They are happy that they will be able to continue to drink their well water … and not have to pay a penny for municipal water or filter maintenance any time soon.” The EPA, she added, “will [have] plenty of eyes watching CTS Corp.’s activities.”

Urquhart-Foster says she’s also urged community members to apply for a grant of up to $50,000, funded by CTS under the new agreement, to hire an independent technical adviser. Some residents, however, say letting CTS administer the funds is like having the fox guard the henhouse.

In early March, residents met with Lenny Siegel, a vapor-intrusion expert familiar with a California contamination case involving CTS. Photo by Susan Andrew

Double-digit growth

In 2011, CTS reported $588 million in revenues, up $36 million from 2010 levels, and shareholder dividends increased 17 percent. And while company officials have not responded to repeated requests for comment, the CTS website quotes CEO Vinod Khilnani saying, “We expect 2012 to benefit from new program launches and deliver double-digit growth.”

The website also states: “CTS is committed to maintaining the quality of the environment in the communities in which it operates. It is CTS’ intent to comply with both the letter and the spirit of environmental laws and regulations. CTS employees will treat the environment with care and engage in responsible business practices with respect to environmental management.”

Visit http://avl.mx/au to view key documents in the CTS case. For prior Xpress coverage of the issue, go to www.mountainx.com/cts.

Susan Andrew can be reached at sandrew@mountainx.com.

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