Green Scene: Testing the waters

On Sept. 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it’s considering proposing the former CTS electroplating plant in south Asheville and a related Mills Gap Road site for possible inclusion in the National Priorities (Superfund) List. Area residents have reported numerous health problems, and Xpress spoke recently with one of them, Gabe Dunsmith, who’s conducted his own investigation into the contamination. His wrk has been published in Arden’s Christ School newspaper. Dunsmith is a senior there. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Mountain Xpress: The abandoned CTS facility is about 3.5 miles from your school. Does the Christ School still use well water?
Gabe Dunsmith:
We do, but the last test did not show TCE [trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen], so as far as we know, our water is clean and safe.

What did your research reveal about the spread of chemical pollution beyond the plant site?
The N.C. Division of Public Health released a report in January 2010 claiming that the plume is not spreading, so they claim that the pollution is not an imminent threat to the community. [But] we know that Robinson Creek is highly contaminated — it flows close to the CTS facility, down through the Mills Gap community, and crosses Christ School property.

How do you know Robinson Creek is contaminated?
It was a 2007 report from the French Broad Riverkeeper, who tested and found the stream to be contaminated with 56,600 times the legal limit of TCE. It’s very concerning to the community.

Was your family using well water?
We’ve always been on city water, but the facility has been a concern to my family, since my brother and I would go out and play in the woods, and we’d play in Robinson Creek. We had no idea that it was so highly contaminated; there are no signs anywhere to notify people.

You are a survivor of thyroid cancer. When were you diagnosed?
When I was 11 years old, in 2005 — we didn’t know about the CTS facility at that time. Thyroid cancer is extremely rare in children, so it was a source of big concern for my family. I had a complete thyroidectomy at age 11. I take a replacement hormone each day and will for the rest of my life. It turned out that the cancer wasn’t just in my thyroid: I had to have several lymph nodes removed, and the cancer was also in my neck tissue and my lungs. I had two to three years of radiation therapy, which makes you really tired, and the whole thing is incredibly wearing on your body — but I’m very fortunate that I did not have to do chemotherapy.

And your brother experienced a different form of cancer?
Yes, he was diagnosed with a benign bone tumor at age 13. It was very concerning when one child had already been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The tumor was in his ankle, and it was removed, and he has healed.

What impact has all of this had on your parents?
It was very stressful. I remember we attended a prayer session one night in the chapel at our church, and that probably impacted me the most, seeing their reactions during that session. It was like, they’re praying for me. … Could something go wrong? … That was when I clearly remember [seeing] the depth of my parents’ reaction.

We drive past the CTS plant every day, but we assumed — as did most everyone else in the community — that if something was wrong, if it was polluting the ground, if people were in danger, that the government would have cleaned it up a long time ago. But that isn’t true. When my mom first started looking into why is there an elevated rate of disease in the community, why do our neighbors’ kids have these really rare diseases, she e-mailed officials, who told her that it was being taken care of, and that it was being cleaned up. But my own research shows that is not the case. I started researching it in January of this year, writing articles for the Christ School newspaper. I initially thought I’d be writing about my own experience with cancer, but it turned into something totally different.

What did it turn into?
When I first sat down to write about my cancer, I knew very little about the CTS facility — I knew only what my mom had told me, that it was a source of contamination but that it was being cleaned up. In January the N.C. Division of Public Health released their report [saying] that the site is not a concern, even though they acknowledged the contamination in the creeks and advised people to stay out of them. Now CTS Corp. is trying to claim that there’s an alternate source of contamination — like the [former] Gerber plant — but the contamination would have had to migrate several miles uphill to affect the families that have had cancer.

Isn’t part of the problem that no one knows how far the plume has spread?
Yes. The EPA’s 2002 report that called the contamination an imminent threat also estimated the cost of cleanup, saying that if nothing is done immediately, contaminants will continue to spread and the situation will get worse.

What do you believe should happen next?
CTS should pay for cleanup, down to clearing the contamination out of the ground, demolishing the plant and cleaning up the streams. Cleanup will cost more now, because contamination has spread — but the state is not forcing CTS to undertake real cleanup. The agencies need to enforce cleanup.

— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew sandrew@mountainx.com, or 251-1333, ext. 153.

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