League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County Observer Corps member, Davyne Dial, contributed to this report.
UPDATED with information and thoughts from Jan Blunt, Buncombe County Schools Communications Director:
In the 20 years that Buncombe County Schools’ administrative offices have been located on Bingham Road, the facility has been on the public water system and there have been no reported air-quality problems, says Jan Blunt, the school-systems director of communications.
School Board member Lisa Baldwin alleges there are contaminated wells on the site, which is listed on the North Carolina roster of inactive hazardous waste sites. But “the facility has ONLY been on city water, NEVER … on well water,” Blunt clarifies. “To rule out or identify any air quality issue in advance of proposed building renovations, testing will be done beginning August 8,” she tells Xpress.
“If an issue is discovered, the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources has indicated that mitigation procedures would likely be similar to that for radon. If that is the case, a mitigation system could be incorporated into the renovation plans for the proposed STEM high school, or completed separately to ensure the safety of those staff and students currently occupying the building.”
Blunt also reports that “the known contamination in monitoring wells located 800 [feet] from our facility originated across the street from” the school-system facility.
Here’s the original post (published Aug. 3):
The Buncombe County Board of Education voted unanimously Aug. 2 to direct staff to consider doing an independent study of hazardous-waste contamination at the school system’s administrative offices at 175 Bingham Road — site of the former Square D plant in the Emma neighborhood.
The property is being considered for a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) themed high school. The building was purchased by the school system more than 20 years ago from Square D, which manufactured electronic components. In the mid–1990s, soil and ground water on the site were found to be contaminated with petroleum, PCE, TCE and chloroform. The site remains on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources list of inactive hazardous-waste sites.
Since it was purchased by the school system, the Square D building has housed the superintendent’s office and other central-office personnel, BCS Technology and Maintenance Departments, Child Nutrition offices, and the Career Technical Education Center, according to the Buncombe County Schools website.
Contamination issues aside, the cost to renovate the building to house the new STEM school and accommodate re-located office and conference space is estimated at between $3 to $4 million, according to the Buncombe County Schools website.
The study request is being spearheaded by Board of Education member Lisa Baldwin.
On Aug. 3, she sent out the below message via her email newsletter:
The site of a former Career Education Center for Buncombe high school students and the proposed site for a STEM high school came under fire at last night’s school board meeting.
In January, I became concerned after reading that a former Square D factory on Bingham Road was listed on the North Carolina Inactive Hazardous Waste Site List. (This list is inactive only because no one is investigating the hazard.) The CTS plant was also on this list.
I called the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) to find out if the Central Office (proposed site of a STEM high school) was affected. Ms. Donna DeCarlo, a hyrdrogeologist with DENR in Mooresville, NC, said she would get more information from Raleigh. She received four large file boxes and concluded that the Central Office, one of two former Square D factories, was, indeed, included in the hazardous waste site.
Further, there are at least 20 monitoring wells on the two properties, with three on the central office property. All were installed in the mid-1990’s. Two of these wells are tested annually by Square D and the third well was put in by another company nearby, Champion Finishing. When BCS built the Marshall Roberts Maintenance Building in 2005, the Champion well was paved over. Apparently, the groundwater in this well was only tested initially and has not been checked since 1995. DENR has gotten permission to have the well uncovered and it will be tested soon. Soil testing and air quality testing in the Central Office should follow.
The wells on the school property tested high for TCE, a known carcinogen and the contaminant also found at the CTS plant site in south Asheville. Central Office Monitoring Well #15 tested 287 parts per billion of TCE and Monitoring Well 15D tested at 73.1 ppb of TCE. The safe level is 5 parts per billion. Back in the early 1990’s Square D paid for city water lines to homes in the area with wells. However, it is not known if soil is also contaminated in the area or if old wells are being used for irrigation or even drinking water by new residents who do not know of the contamination.
When I first learned that the Central Office was part of the hazardous waste site,
I went straight to the superintendent, Dr. Tony Baldwin, for answers. He said he “didn’t know” if any testing had been done and said he would check with the Maintenance Dept. Director. He did not get back with me until after DENR began its May 30, 2012 testing – I emailed him in June and asked if he had the test results. He told me they were not available. When they did become available, I received them from Ms. DeCarlo at DENR.
Keep in mind that the ground water has tested positive for TCE but it is not yet known if there is any vapor intrusion into the Central Office. I will keep you posted.
Questions Remain Unanswered
• Apparently two phases of an environmental study were conducted prior to the county purchase of the property in 1989. I have made a public records request for the study findings.
• Local resident, Bill Lack, spoke during the public comment section of the Aug. 2nd school board meeting. He implied that Rockwell had considered purchasing the Square D property back in the late 1980’s but they were concerned about possible hazards and did not pursue the purchase.
• Dr. Baldwin said that BCS had not received the annual water tests from the two monitoring wells being tested by Square D. Why wasn’t the test data requested from Square D? Did the city or county government receive the test results?
• Because students frequent the Central Office, whether in the former Career Education Center for technical classes or in the Newcomer Center for non-English speakers – why hadn’t anyone looked into environmental testing before?
Action Taken – I made a motion at Thursday’s meeting to have the administration look into the cost (get quotes from different labs) and feasibility of doing independent testing for possible hazardous waste contamination on the Central Office property, which may include water, soil and vapor intrusion/air quality testing. The motion passed unanimously.