The EPA gets earful from Mills Gap community

On Thursday, April 14, Environmental Protection Agency officials hosted another in a long series of community meetings about the contaminated CTS site in south Asheville. Just a few weeks ago, the EPA had announced that the vacant Mills Gap Road property was being proposed for the National Priorities List (aka the Superfund program). But with a final decision not coming till September, the EPA convened the April 14 meeting to report what resources are available to local residents.

The Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS company operated an electroplating facility on the site for about 30 years, shutting it down in the mid-1980s. In the years since, high levels of such toxic chemicals as trichloroethylene have been found on-site and in the drinking water of nearby residents. (See “Fail Safe?” July 11, 2007, Xpress.). Although some residents have since had their wells closed and their drinking water switched to public supplies, high contamination levels remain, and there’s uncertainty about its continued spread; residents have demanded that state and federal officials follow through with promises to clean it up. What they heard at the April 14 meeting didn’t seem to appease them.

The EPA officials mentioned technical-assistance grants and new environmental testing services, and they suggested creating an EPA-sponsored Community Advisory Group that would bring additional support.

“We already have a technical assistance group,” said Barry Durand, one of several community leaders who have led the charge to uncover the complete nature of the contamination — and to highlight mistakes state and federal officials have made in handling the problem. (See “EPA Inspector General Blasts Agency’s Handling of CTS Site,” July 19, 2010, Xpress.)

“It’s a colossal joke with no punchline,” said community leader Tate MacQueen of the decades-long fight for clean up.

Resident Margaret Riddle referred to the high levels of contaminants still emanating from the site and possibly lurking under the shuttered plant building. “If you don’t clean up the source, we’re wasting our time here,” she said.

Neighbors continue to complain of chemical odors in their backyards and basements, and high levels of contaminants remain in nearby springs and ground water, although a soil vapor extraction system was installed in the plant by an environmental contractor. The system has recovered some 6,500 pounds of volatile organic compounds, but it was disabled by thieves who broke into the plant last year and took the copper equipment.

Neighbor Lori Murphy, who lives near the plant, worries that something is wrong with the water in her home, which she shares with her husband and pregnant daughter. “In the last two weeks in our home, you wash your hair, and it comes out oily. We have rashes on our skin” after showering, she told the crowd at the Skyland Fire Department.

“It’s like an endurance test,” MacQueen told Xpress after the meeting, adding that EPA’s treatment of the case as a remediation instead of an emergency cleanup is “like trying to use a mop while the hose is still running. It’s ridiculous.”

Last month, the EPA proposed adding the CTS property to the National Priorities List, which would place it among the nation’s most contaminated sites and make it eligible for cleanup under the Superfund program. The process begins with a 60-day comment period, which will end May 9.

Mills Gap residents are asking the EPA to implement emergency removal actions to address the contamination immediately, actions they say should happen concurrently with the slower Superfund process. When MacQueen asked EPA Remedial Project Manager Samantha Urquhart-Foster if she would advocate for a concurrent emergency action process, she told the gathering that she would do so.

Readers can see Mountain Xpress‘s many reports on the issue here.

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