On Oct. 29, Buncombe County Commissioners heard from a panel of Environmental Protection Agency, state, and health officials about CTS of Asheville, a hazardous-waste site that’s causing ground-water contamination — and plenty of concern — on Mills Gap Road. Until recently, Commissioners have had little to say on the issue, despite weeks of angry citizens weighing in during public comment at their meetings. Now that they’ve all been amply informed by a panel of experts, Xpress wanted to find out how the county plans to move forward.
The following conversation with Commission Chair Nathan Ramsey revealed that the situation has brought to light new questions at the county level. For instance, how to prevent developers from — knowingly or unknowingly — buying contaminated property and building on it?
Following that interview are comments from Commissioner David Gantt.
The Board of Commissioners will take up this issue at their scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Look for a more detailed article on the topic in next week’s Xpress.
— Rebecca Bowe, Contributing Editor
Comments from Nathan Ramsey about CTS
Mountain Xpress: Your reactions to the Oct. 29 meeting?
Nathan Ramsey: I don’t think the residents are going to be happy until that property is 100 percent cleaned up. And I guess the challenge I have is I need a better understanding of the legal process to do that. If you recall, [Jim Bateson], the gentleman with the state, mentioned that if we are not careful and we go at this in an adversarial way they can use the court process to take another 20 years.
So maybe that is a legitimate concern, and I know the state does have to make priorities with these sites. So I know they have a difficult job. But, they are clearly in violation of state law right now. The state is the one that has the enforcement authority to make something happen in a positive way. I think the county, if the state refuses to do that, would need to explore inner circla what … options [it has] to try to encourage CTS to engage in a more aggressive cleanup or extraction method.
When will the Commissioners be discussing this further?
It’s going to be on the agenda for the next board meeting [Tuesday, Nov. 6]. We initially were just going to bring it on our agenda at a regular meeting, but our staff felt like we wanted to wait until after we had EPA and DENR here. And also the format of our meetings, and the time of our meetings, the fact that it’s in downtown Asheville, we wanted to make it as convenient as we could to that community. So certainly it was [county staff’s] idea, to go ahead and hold this community forum with EPA and DENR and all the relevant parties.
I think in closed session the county will discuss what legal options we have.
Do you think there is a problem with the county having a lack of information from state and federal environmental agencies about properties containing hazardous substances?
I was talking with Mr. [Harry] Zinn at the meeting. And I asked him, is there any county in the state that takes into account properties’ environmental issues when they go through the development process? And he claimed, to the best of his knowledge, he was not aware of any county in the state of North Carolina that when the development goes through the planning process, that these issues are discussed.
One of the major issues that the county does have some control over is development. And there’s been criticism of how was this property subdivided, and how it was approved by the county. And they had a letter from DENR or EPA that stated that no further action was required that was submitted to the county board of adjustments. If you talk to those officials today, they will say that letter did not indicate what the developer at the time tried to imply it indicated. The developer tried to imply that the letter meant that this property was environmentally clean, that it poses no hazard and that a development can occur without any problem on that site. The county, though, does not have anyone, even in the health department, who has the expertise to know about these hazardous-waste sites.
One of the issues that we have to address is that there’s 20-something [hazardous-waste] sites in Buncombe County to our knowledge. … We have some sites in the county that are on the [National Priorities List], so that would indicate that they are more toxic than CTS. And so how can the county, at least from a disclosure standpoint, make neighbors or prospective purchasers aware that if they purchase property in this particular area … that they are adjacent to this hazardous-waste site? And to give them full knowledge … so that they go into it with their eyes wide open. And we could put it maybe in our GIS system, so some one could [find it on] our county Web site … I think that’s very appropriate. But I think what’s really challenging about CTS from a scientific standpoint is that [DENR and EPA] did not believe that there was any health risk at that site in a measurable way, as long as they were on public water.
I’m not critical of EPA and DENR and I want to make it very clear, they took their time out to come to this meeting. For the community members to feel like EPA and DENR are completely unconcerned about their problem …. They took a lot of time out to come up here from Atlanta and Raleigh specifically for this meeting. So for that, we’re truly grateful.
But Mr. [David] Dorian at the meetings made a comment … He said it is not EPA’s role to regulate the sale of private property. And that is completely, from a local government standpoint, unhelpful. At least EPA could give a local government evidence, or say in their consent-order with CTS and Mills Gap Road Associates, that you will agree not to subdivide this property, or we’re going to place a deed covenant on it, or it’s not be used for residential purposes, or whatever they felt like was appropriate.
They had the legal ability to do that. At the very minimum what they should have done when they were regulating this site is they should have notified the county. And they should have said, we would recommend that the county take the following action. They failed to do that.
I’ll tell you right now, if at any of those other 25 sites in the county, some one tried to sell off a portion, if EPA or DENR did not stop them from doing so, the county has no legal process in place right now to stop them from being developed. They do intend right now to enter those sites into [our county records] so the inspectors know where those sites are located. But I do not think we have adequate information right now, and the process is in place, beyond CTS to make those decisions. I thought the answer from the state and from the federal government on that particular issue was pretty weak. We need a better cooperative agreement with them.
When that came before Board of Adjustment … the county could have sent a letter to EPA and DENR and [said] here’s a proposed development, we would like further clarification on your letter, do you think this is an appropriate development. And in a perfect world, that’s what they would have done. But as I said earlier, the county needs a number of action steps. In my view, and I’m certainly one commissioner, so I can’t make anything happen by myself. But to have a process in place that we allow for full disclosure, to people that are purchasing property, and … when there are public health dangers that EPA or DENR think are real, then we need to either not approve a development because of it or put whatever restrictions they feel like are appropriate on it.
Is there any provision in place at this point in time that would prevent some one from drilling a well in the area nearby CTS?
That’s what I was just telling you … [Once a better system is in place] … You would request a well being drilled in this particular area it should pop up to say, this is an issue. Now there are wells in that community within a mile that are clear, not contaminated, and not a problem. My understanding is that DENR would not recommend to us that there be a total prohibition of wells in a one-mile area or two-mile area. The question was more about testing… the only well that they’ve positively tested was the one out on Concord Road, that they closed down and put them on city water. One of the things that I want the county to do, and I have talked to our health director about this, is that I want the county to provide well testing to anyone in that area that wants it. And includes testing from TCE contaminants to other chemicals. The testing would have to be done by county staff, because you’re handling hydrochloric acid and other things, but if some one is fearful that they’re drinking out of a well that might be contaminated, then they need to be able to pick up the phone, call the county and we might not charge them the full cost of our staff time or whatever. … Anyone that wants their well tested, we’ll test it. And if it turns out it is contaminated, then we will get them hooked up to city water.
DENR is doing more testing, but they really don’t have a blanket offer to everyone … but I think the county needs to step up to the plate and be more aggressive.
I understand that there was a letter that CTS sent to the County Commissioners.
The letter from CTS — the basic focus of it was ‘We are responsible for this site and we’re going to clean it up in a responsible way.’ It certainly wasn’t a confrontational letter.”
Comments from County Commissioner David Gantt
(note: Xpress did not do a full-scale interview with Gantt due to timing and scheduling issues. However, he did leave the following comments in a voice message.)
“I’m really glad that all the EPA and regulatory people were there, I think we had the right group there. I think people have a right to know what’s gone on, what hasn’t gone on, and I’m glad that the commissioners could be a small part of getting everybody together. I think the next step is to force and keep the pressure on the state and federal regulators to clean up the site, and to make CTS and Mills Gap Associates responsible for any damages so that the taxpayers don’t have to pay for something that was caused by a private company. I think there’s been some slowness on behalf of the federal and the state officials to get on this, and I appreciate the local groups that are now asking the right questions and putting this on the front burner. And I feel that that’s been one reason that we’ve gotten the action we have. I am hopeful the county can be part of that process, and continue to hold the feet to the fire and make sure these things are monitored, and fixed. Because the people that live in our community deserve to know that it’s a safe place, they need to know their drinking water is safe, and as some one who lives about three miles away, and uses well water, I want to make sure my water’s safe for my family.”